By Kevin Caputo, M.D., Chairman, Department of Psychiatry at Crozer-Chester Medical Center
It’s time to stop thinking that underage drinking is okay, that every teenager does it and that it’s part of growing up. The truth is that underage drinking is flat out dangerous.
While moderate drinking might actually be good for your health, excessive alcohol consumption can cause a lot of damage to not only yourself, but to society as well. For this year’s Alcohol Awareness Month, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) is focusing on the complex issue of underage drinking, calling on parents, schools and other organizations, to raise awareness of this common problem and ensure teens get the help and guidance they need.
Risks of Underage Drinking
Alcohol use by young people isn’t only a problem because it’s illegal. As the number one drug choice among teens, it presents a significant danger to teens who drink, as well as to others.
Not only is alcohol illegal for those under 21, but it can lead to disastrous consequences. Underage drinking in combination with other drug use can lead to illness or even death since the brain is still developing.
Brain cells are killed when teens drink alcohol, which can interrupt brain development that is critical before age 21. And since the brain is still immature, alcohol increases the chance that a teen will make bad decisions when he drinks.
Alcohol consumption by underage drinkers has been linked to traffic deaths, violence, suicide, overdose and other types of problematic behaviors. Every year, over 6,500 people under the age of 21 die as a result of an alcohol-related accident. And unfortunately, these destructive habits don’t only affect them when they’re young. Those who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol than those who start drinking at age 21.
Alcohol can sometimes be a gateway to other substances as well. Alcohol is easily accessible and allows a young person to experience euphoria, so they might experiment with other drugs, like heroin or marijuana.
According to the CDC, 88,000 deaths are attributed to excessive alcohol consumption in the US every year, making it the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Alcohol abuse is pervasive in our society, but I think if we put in the public eye how to recognize alcohol abuse, it will save lives.
Unfortunately, alcoholism is often perceived as a simple addiction rather than the harmful disease that it really is. Alcohol can cause a number of different health issues, such as stomach problems (i.e. ulcers, gastritis), cardiac disease and even dementia. It affects almost every organ system.
How Can it Be Prevented?
I urge parents and teachers to educate teens about the dangers of alcohol abuse. To me, it’s about keeping constant lines of communication open between children and their parents, as well as other adults, such as teachers or guidance counselors. If a teen is being pressured by her peers to drink, for example, she should feel comfortable discussing the issue with a parent or counselor. When this happens, she can learn that there are other options to alcohol.
Additionally, it’s important for people to be aware if an immediate family member, such as a parent or sister, has struggled with alcohol abuse as alcoholism runs in families. If so, you must be careful with alcohol since you’re more likely to be affected by it than others.
The other way to prevent an alcohol dependency is by not using it as a coping strategy. If you drink a glass of wine and you feel good, that’s one thing, but if you have it to function, solve problems and deal with emotional disturbances, then that’s a problem. Instead, use other coping strategies and support systems so you’re not using alcohol as an agent to help you.
However, if you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms of alcoholism, it’s important to remember that it is treatable. It’s an illness much like heart disease is an illness. Nevertheless, we have to eliminate the stigma and focus more on getting the treatment they need.