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Teens' Serious Alcohol Problems


Recent studies agree: most young people experiment with alcohol. By the time they are seniors in high school, 58 percent report they have been drunk 1 even though they can't drink legally until they are 21. Their drinking typically accelerates when they go away to college where 40 percent of students say that they binge on alcohol (for young men this means drinking five or more drinks in a row; for young women, four or more drinks in a row).2

Most of the young people who get drunk or binge gradually outgrow this dangerous behavior as they become adults with jobs and family responsibilities. If they're lucky, they may simply miss a class or two because of a hangover. Others experience more serious problems that alter their lives in significant ways: premature death, injury, smoking and using illicit drugs, academic failure, arrest, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease all are associated with drinking among young people.

Some 3 million young Americans will develop an serious alcohol problem that will significantly increase their risk for experiencing one of these life altering problems. According to the federal government, compared to their peers without an alcohol drug use disorder, young people with drinking problems:

  • require emergency room medical care 47 percent more often
  • miss two more weeks of school
  • are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with another drug use disorder
  • are 10 times more likely to drive under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs
  • are four times more likely to be arrested or booked for breaking the law
  • are two and a half times as likely to run away or sleep on the streets

Alcohol Interferes With Maturation

As serious as these problems are — for the individuals who experience them and for their families and communities — they fail to convey how alcohol problems interfere with young people's bodies and minds, which haven't yet had a chance to fully mature. serious alcohol problems stunt emotional development by masking the stress and anxiety that can be a normal part of adolescence, robbing young people of the opportunity to develop the coping skills they will need to succeed later in life. In short, even if they escape serious physical harm, alcohol problems prevent young people from achieving their full potential as adults in ways that aren't easily quantified.

Young people with serious alcohol problems — many of whom also have mental health disorders that make their drinking and other drug use much more problematic — are among the most vulnerable in our society. They need treatment. But the vast majority — 83 percent, on average — isn't getting it, and among those who do, only 25 percent get enough. 3

The benefits of treatment for young people, as well as society, are enormous. Recent clinical research proves that effective treatment developed specifically for adolescents can help them get their lives back on track through:

  • considerable reductions in their use of alcohol and marijuana one year after treatment
  • significantly fewer problems associated with their drinking and other drug use
  • less criminal activity
  • improved school performance, including better grades and attendance
  • healthier psychological outcomes, including higher self-esteem, decreased hostility and fewer suicidal thoughts


1 2002 Monitoring the Future Survey, University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.

2 1999 College Alcohol Survey, Harvard School of Public Health.

3 Physician Leadership for National Drug Policy. 2002. Adolescent Substance Abuse: A Public Health Priority.