Adolescent brain more severely impacted by drugs and alcohol

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Illicit drugs, alcohol, and prescription drugs have a profound impact on the teenage brain and that impact gets in the way of youths living the lives that they want.

Rand Teed, the final keynote speaker at the two day 2013 Provincial Drug Strategy Conference in Swift Current on May 8 and 9, shared a sobering view of how activity patterns in the adolescent brain are impacted by drugs and alcohol. He shared a series of SPECT brain scans which clearly showed the difference between normal functioning brains and how brain function deteriorates after drug and alcohol use.

"Regular drug or alcohol use changes brain function in kids, it doesn't matter how good looking they are or how smart they are or anything else, it changes how their brains work. We never really think of it that way. They always think 'well, I'm not that bad'. Or it's better that they're taking alcohol than doing cocaine, or it's better than they're smoking marijuana than smoking crack. And that just isn't true. All drugs have a negative effect on what's going on with brains. And because adolescent brains are developing, it changes their path. It changes the direction they're going."

Teed does not need to see the science behind how the teenage brain reacts to drugs and alcohol, as he has seen it firsthand during 35 years of working with teens dealing with drug, alcohol and substance abuse problems. Has has been the writer and host of the Gemini Award winning TV Series Drug Class, which for three seasons has been following the lives of youth who are struggling with problems stemming from drug and alcohol use. Each season is a 13-part documentary style show which interweaves the real-life stories of a group of teens with information he presents during classroom and counseling sessions.

Drug Class also boasts a website, drugclass.ca, which tackles drug and alcohol issues with a series of blog topics and video clips.

During his presentation in Swift Current, Teed highlighted that research shows alcohol use changes the development process of cognition, literally changing a youth's ability to think. Obviously, parents do not need to see scans of the brain to understand their children are experiencing problems with drugs and alcohol.

"You can see changes in behaviour really quickly in kids. They'll start being more dishonest, they'll start distancing themselves from parents, they'll hide stuff. Parents, if they love their kids, need to know what they're doing, they need to know what's going on with them," Teed said.

"I'm always encouraging parents not to be too lax on the sleepover thing, because then you don't really know what your kids are getting into."

"The average age of first use of alcohol in Saskatchewan is 11. The average age of first use of marijuana in Saskatchewan is 12 years, two months. So kids are getting into this young. And the younger they get into it, the bigger negative impacts it's going to have on them, because their brain hasn't developed sufficiently to handle this kind of stuff."

Teed said his reaching out to youths is more successful when they are presented with facts, not scare tactics.

"The kids love this stuff. It helps them understand what they're doing, because they think that it's not a big deal. And so helping them understand it is a big deal is important, even if it's 'just' drinking," Teed said. "They think in terms of 'just'. 'I'm just smoking weed, or I'm just drinking.' And if you can help them understand that it isn't a 'just', that it does have an impact on them and this is how it changes them, they will start to re-think that. But you have to do it in a non-threatening, non-judgemental way."

"Saying 'no' doesn't work, saying 'know' is more effective."

Teed also felt that events like the Provincial Drug Strategy Conference have a larger impact beyond those in the room.

"When communities get focussed on this, and some of the community leaders like we had here today start to understand what substance abuse is all about, they can take this kind of messaging out into their communities at it will geometric progression wise help the province."

Geographic location: Swift Current, Saskatchewan

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