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Substance Use: What happens and how do we help?

By Daniel Lee | March 2019

There are so many questions about substance use and how we as school counselors can help with this growing problem. In Colorado, we face similar issues and problems to those across the nation, but also have the issue of legalized marijuana. According to information shared in an ASCA webinar, marijuana is the preferred drug over alcohol because it is readily available, it is easier to disguise and hide, it produces a more favorable high, students actually believe marijuana is healthier and students polled believe they are better drivers when on a marijuana high.
As we know, the brain has two major periods of growth: infancy and adolescence. When students are in adolescence the necessary process known as pruning begins to strength the brain. This process eliminates weaker neurons and pathways and essentially cleans up the brain. This pruning also creates healthy and strong neurons and pathways. The prefrontal cortex is the final part of the brain to develop and continues to grow and develop well into the twenties. The prefrontal cortex controls our impulses; develops executive functioning, reasoning, flexibility, problem solving and planning; and builds working memory. Studies have proven that substance use damages brain cells, and although a small amount may return, too often these cells, especially the ones that are still developing, will never develop fully and the connections are not nearly as strong.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Education and other entities surveyed 56,000 Colorado youth to generate the Executive Summary of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. This survey asked students about mental health, substance use, and tobacco use, thoughts of suicide, obesity, bullying and violence. Our statistics are very similar to the national statistics when it comes to substance use. Alcohol, prescription drugs and even marijuana use are all very similar. Aside from the survey, counselors across the state have said that substance use has become a major problem and they are seeing more and more issues in the schools, particularly with marijuana and vaping. According to the survey, Colorado has a much higher percentage with e-cigarettes and vaping. What this survey does not show is that while states’ numbers are similar, substance use overall is increasing at an alarming rate. More and more students report having used a substance within the last 30 days. When you dig into the information, you find that many of students are just trying a substance, a little more digging shows that these students are trying dangerous combinations of different substances, such as marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms together, or prescription drugs and alcohol.
Substance use has significant effects on the brain. Many of the campaigns for marijuana say it is safer than other substances, but what they fail to mention is the “except for youth” part. When substance use occurs – and certainly even more so with substance abuse – chemicals begin to change in the brain. Good and healthy brain chemicals have been replaced with synthetic and harmful chemicals. Now the brain does not have the ability to handle, cope and deal with different life stressors. These new chemicals in the brain also create voids where the brain will decrease or even stop the production of healthy chemicals such as dopamine. This decrease in natural and healthy chemicals leads to an increase in mental health issues.
So what can we as counselors do about this growing problem? It begins with education. It is important for young people, family members and community members to know about how substance use affects adolescent minds. Students – and families – need to know the dangers of these drugs and the short-term and long-term effects. Many of our young people today see substance use as an easy way to deal with stress and life, and let’s face it: Young people have a lot of stressors. Those conversations about healthy stress management are important. Young people need to know the truth about their brain and the effects of substance use on the brain. The conversations need to continue and be open. As with mental health and suicide, we know that contracts are not effective.
A lot of information and even complete teaching curriculums are available about substance use. Contact the state health department, your local health department, addiction services and counselors, CDE, American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and other online resources for help. In this issue, see the article about free resources from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
At times, it feels as though we are talking to a wall, or beating our head against it, but we have to keep trying.
Contact Daniel Lee, CSCA president-elect, at