At Risk Youth, Mental Illness, and Addiction

The term at-risk youth is used frequently, but what does it mean exactly? Those in the mental health field tend to use the phrase freely but it’s worth explaining more clearly what the term means.


In general, at-risk youth are those children who have had distressing childhoods and by virtue of their circumstances are more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially. They likely had a poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver, tend to be vulnerable to harm against self and others, drug use, early sexual activity, suicide attempts, and mental illness. They might have experienced child abuse in one form or another. Due to these difficulties, they might develop a mental illness. Types of mental illnesses prevalent among at risk youth are Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


At risk youth tend to develop addiction to either drugs or alcohol, mostly because, according to one study, they tend to put themselves in dangerous situations. The Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas explored the differences in brain regions that are associated with risk taking in teens. The research found that connections between certain brain regions are amplified in teens who are more prone to dangerous behavior. The Center for BrainHealth investigated the behavior of 36 adolescents between the ages of 12-17. Participants were screened for risk taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and physical violence. Each teen underwent MRI testing in order for researchers to examine the communication between brain regions. The study revealed that risk taking teens exhibit hyperconnectivity between the amydgala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactivity, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotional regulation and critical thinking skills.


Perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that when a child has suffered trauma, abuse, or other life-threatening experiences in their family of origin, he or she is more vulnerable to developing a mental illness, including addiction. Other studies related to drug addiction treatment show that those who were abused as children tend to perceive the use of alcohol or drugs as a positive experience. Furthermore, they were not able to identify the risks associated with substance use. Also, in the year 2000, there were over 2.7 million children who were reported as being abused, and of these cases, 879,000 confirmed the presence of some form of abuse. Considering the connection between child abuse, mental illness, and substance abuse addictions, these statistics point to a large number of children and adolescents vulnerable to addiction.


Furthermore, the Child Welfare League of America (2001) recently found that substance abuse is present in 40-80 percent of families in which children are abuse victims. These statistics and past research have clearly made the connection between abuse of children and the presence of addiction in adolescence and later life. Families in which there is substance abuse are more likely to experience abuse or are at a higher risk of abuse. Families that have members who abuse either drugs or alcohol are more likely to also have a history of either physical or sexual abuse. Members of those families are more likely to find themselves in substance abuse treatment.


It’s common for drugs and alcohol to serve as a coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma, including child abuse. It has been found that children and teens tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma than adults whose brains have fully developed. The underdeveloped brain in children is not mature enough to integrate the traumatic experience and process it in a way that facilitates moving on from it. This is a primary reason that puts children and teens at risk for addiction to drugs or alcohol, and mental illness later in life.


The implications of studies that explore the relationships between youth, mental illness, and addiction can lead to developing better intervention and treatment methods to help risk-taking adolescents. Although the correlation between early trauma and mental illness, including addiction, is not surprising, perhaps it might lead to the better understanding of patterns among families and individuals. A wider breadth of knowledge leads to enhanced treatment methods, meaningful public education, and the prevention of harm in our communities.