The term “at-risk youth” is defined as “adolescents who struggle with the transition into adulthood and self-sufficiency.” These adolescents can fall into the at risk category if they struggle with poverty, unstable environments, lack of community resources, family instability and dysfunction, mental health issues, and adverse childhood experiences. Without addressing these adversities and receiving the appropriate help that adolescents need, these factors can cause significant developmental and behavioral issues in the adolescent. Developing issues such as these as a young adult can leave them more susceptible to other developmental problems in adulthood, such as: substance use, addiction, self-harm, and violence. There are many reasons adolescents use substances, including peer pressure, desire for new experiences, or as an attempt to cope with turbulent home and life situations. 

“It has been documented that up to 93% of youth with a SUD experience co-occurring mental health disorders (Lichtenstein et al., 2010), and Conway et al. (2016) highlighted that alcohol and drug abuse was highest among youth with prior anxiety disorders and behavior disorders relative to youth with no mental health disorders.”

In the adolescent years, the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex are not fully developed. The frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex control judgment, memory, emotional expression, sexual behaviors, decision making, problem solving, planning, and goal setting. The brain is still malleable during this period, and neuroplasticity is shaped to pave the way into adulthood. They have a fully functioning reward system, but lack control of prefrontal cortex functions. This combination leaves adolescents extremely vulnerable to substance use disorders. 

  • 9 out of 10 addictions start in the teen years, and the youth are 7X more likely to become addicted if they try substances before the age of 21.

According to NIDA, “The brain is wired to encourage life-sustaining and healthy activities through the release of dopamine. Everyday rewards during adolescence—such as hanging out with friends, listening to music, playing sports, and all the other highly motivating experiences for teenagers—cause the release of this chemical in moderate amounts. This reinforces behaviors that contribute to learning, health, well-being, and the strengthening of social bonds. Drugs, unfortunately, are able to hijack this process. The “high” produced by drugs represents a flooding of the brain’s reward circuits with much more dopamine than natural rewards generate. This creates an especially strong drive to repeat the experience. The immature brain, already struggling with balancing impulse and self-control, is more likely to take drugs again without adequately considering the consequences.4 If the experience is repeated, the brain reinforces the neural links between pleasure and drug-taking, making the association stronger and stronger. Soon, taking the drug may assume an importance in the adolescent’s life out of proportion to other rewards.” (NIDA 2020)

In the United States, youth substance abuse has been labelled the single most significant public health problem, one that has reached “epidemic proportion,” accounting for severe long-term health consequences and in excess of $65 billion (USD) in annual healthcare costs (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2011)

In a recent study, it has been discovered that exercise increases neural activity and regulates dopamine levels in adolescents. Exercise increases growth and brain‐derived neurotrophic factors that stimulate endogenous dopaminergic systems that, in turn, enhance general plasticity, learning, and memory. Exercise may help reinforce the “naïve” or underdeveloped connections between neurological reward and regulatory processes in adolescence from the “bottom up” and “offset” reward seeking from substances, while concomitantly improving cardiovascular health, as well as academic and social achievement.” Exercise has been proven to reduce substance use in adolescents and has many positive mental health properties like improved self-esteem and reduced depression and anxiety. “Incorporating structured exercise participation within SUD rehabilitation programs has been shown to be feasible in adult populations, and appears to stimulate more effective recovery outcomes as well as physical and mental health benefits (More et al., 2017).”

Who Can You Call?

Child Abuse Hotline (800 )422-4453   

Y.E.S.S  (515) 282-9377

Lichtenstein D. P., Spirito A., Zimmermann R. P. (2010). Assessing and treating co-occurring disorders in adolescents: examining typical practice of community-based mental health and substance use treatment providers. Community Ment. Health J. 46 252–257. 10.1007/s10597-009-9239-y

Conway K. P., Swendsen J., Husky M. M., He J.-P., Merikangas K. R. (2016). Association of lifetime mental disorders and subsequent alcohol and illicit drug use: results from the National Comorbidity Survey–Adolescent Supplement. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 55 280–288. 10.1016/j.jaac.2016.01.006

NIDA. 2020, June 2. Introduction. Retrieved from