Experimentation or Self-Medication

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Experimentation with drugs and alcohol is extremely common in high school.  There are also kids that are struggling with serious problems, and fall into substance abuse as a way of coping.  How do we draw a line between mere experimentation and self-medication? Self-medication is defined as using drugs or alcohol to self-treat a health problem without medical supervision.  Experimentation is defined as the action or process of trying out new ideas, methods, or activities to gain knowledge or experience. I’m sure most adults canremember the first time they drank beer or smoked weed. The majority of people will say that this all happened for the first time in high school. Why? Because high school is an exciting time for “firsts.” You are too young to make smart conscious decisions for yourself or foresee the consequences of bad decisions. Mental and emotional instability Is almost inevitable during the high school ages of 14-18. This is only natural because your body is going through puberty and your prefrontal cortex is still developing. Chemical imbalances that can affect the the mind and body are very common. What comes with a chemical imbalance is depression and anxiety. These are two mental problems that can mess with you and your entire life and even take lives away. When going through tough times, finding ways to cope is necessary and many kids come up with a good strategy that works for them. But for some overly angsty teens who can’t find healthy ways to cope, dulling their pain by drowning themselves in drugs and alcohol is appealing— and access to drugs and alcohol is pretty much always right at our fingertips.

It is no secret that people I go to school with consume alcohol every weekend.  I have peers that smoke weed everyday. I also can name dozens of kids right off the top of my head that are completely addicted to nicotine. Don’t get me wrong, I do not have the intent of bashing anyone.  I believe that most experimentation in a safe space is okay, because it is healthy for teens to get exposed to things before they go off to college and have to be on their own for the first time. The real concern here is whether these teens are engaged in healthy experimentation or are abusing substances in order to feel OK about themselves. When you are depressed, it is easy to feel helpless, sad, irritable, and become desperate to numb the pain.  I hate to say it but drugs and alcohol are truly the easiest and fastest way to deal with unbearable feelings and stress. The problem is that using a substance to cope with depression and anxiety has only a short term effect at best. You will quickly feel the same horrible feelings once you are sober and none of your problems will have been solved. Binging will never heal the wounds caused by mental illness, because those wounds are far too deep. The most effective ways to cope with depression/anxiety are, talking to a trusted adult/friend, seeing your doctor/therapist, practicing meditation/mindfulness, being active, and just doing little things you love that might make your day a little bit better.  

At Paly, I believe this drift from experimentation to self-medication has become extremely prevalent, and needs to be talked about.  My experience at Paly has been mostly positive: the education is top notch and the opportunities almost endless. However, I do feel that Paly can be a pretty toxic environment. Paly is an achievement pressure cooker.  The intense academic pressure that is put on Paly students is not normal looking at the country as a whole. It has affected the whole student body and made Paly an extremely competitive space—and not in a good way. I have less than a 4.0 GPA, which at most schools would not be a problem.  But at Paly, I feel out of place most of the time, and find that I am constantly down on myself. I start to feel that I am not good enough to be a student here. I am not the only one that feels this way. I know plenty of people that struggle with feeling inadequate academically. These feelings of frustration and sadness are partly what drive my depression.  

  When teens feel inferior they often don’t like to talk about it.  That is why self-medicating may seem so simple and tempting. Honestly, it is often a mindless thing that kids fall into rather than do on purpose.  A real life scenario would be as follows: you’re at a party and have had an extremely tough week. You don’t feel like talking to friends or dancing.  So, you sit down in the corner and sink in depression. Your head fills with scary thoughts, and your heart becomes heavy with sadness. You pick up a bottle and just start drinking.  30 minutes later, you are blacked-out in the same corner with no one around you. Yet somehow you feel better than being sober because you don’t have to think about all of the demons you are battling.  

 I think that Paly admin needs to start looking at Paly life from the perspective of students.  If they did, they may stop taking kids to the office every time they get caught hitting a wax pen in the bathroom.  Many of these kids have serious problems and substanceabuse is just their form of coping. I believe that Paly admin should have more outreach help specifically to find kids who are struggling with self-medicating.  Admin needs to stop treating them as losers and mess ups. However, this is not just an admin issue. It is also our responsibility, as students, to look out for each other. We need to realize that the people you regularly see black-out drunk at a parties could have a lot more going on than a simple desire to get drunk or stoned.  They may need help not punishment.