Utah ranks high in the nation as a great family-oriented place to live with amazing recreational opportunities.  Unfortunately, we also lead the nation in mental health and substance use problems.  A study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “The Facts Hurt, A State by State Injury Prevention Policy Report, 2015.” ranked Utah fifth in the nation for overdose deaths.  Utah along with other high altitude and mountainous states also leads the nation in depression and suicide rates coming in second to Montana in rates of mental illness.  The recent growth of Utah County puts our teens at increased risk for drug addiction.

The best source of prevention for teen drug use and suicide is for parents to talk openly and consistently to their children about these issues, be aware of any signs of problems, and get immediate professional help.

Following are common misperceptions parents have and mistakes to avoid when talking to kids.

  • DON’T WAIT TO TALK:  It is NEVER too early to talk with children about dangers of drug use.  Many parents wait until kids are in mid-adolescence to have the conversation.  This is the most stressful period of the lifespan and also the time they are trying to individuate away from parents.  The peer group becomes more important and they may not be listening.  A one-time conversation is not enough.  A kid’s life is changing rapidly and what you said a week ago is old news.  Repetition will make the message stick.


  • DON’T MAKE IT A MORAL ISSUE: Drug and alcohol use causes chemical and structural brain changes and the younger a person begins using the more they are at risk for a serious brain disease – addiction.  Being judgmental or “laying down the law” can actually push kids to experiment and stop them from coming to you for help.  Ask kids questions about what they think of drugs and listen to them.  Then provide them with basic, accurate information.  “Just say no” doesn’t work.


  • DON’T HIDE YOUR OWN PAST DRUG USE: Many parents who used drugs in their past often hide it from their kids.  There is no research that shows that discussing your past drug use with teens leads them to use. Teens like honesty from parents.


  • BE AWARE OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES: Two thirds of kids who use drugs also have mental health issues.  Drugs may appear to medicate these issues initially and make a kid feel better.  Watch closely and be aware of signs of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and eating disorders.  Getting help early could avoid the additional problem of addiction.


  • DON’T ASSUME IT IS JUST A PHASE: Although all kids who experiment with drugs do not become addicted – teen drug use is connected to other leading causes of death such as auto accidents, homicides, and suicides.


  • DON’T BUY INTO THE STIGMA: Families are often bound by unscientific, shaming beliefs about substance use.  Addiction can happen to anyone and there is no such thing as the “perfect family” or “perfect parent”.  If your teen is using drugs don’t blame yourself, don’t punish your child, and don’t hide it – get help for them right away.

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Susan Mitchell

Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and is clinical director at Ascendant Behavioral Health, located in Lehi. She can be reached at smitchell@ascendantclinics.com or 801-502-3913.