Youth and the choices they make – both healthy and unhealthy – are tied directly to the interactions and support they receive from adults in our community. During the pandemic, early studies show higher rates of alcohol and substance misuse in adults and an increase in certain risk factors for youth use. As we transition out of the pandemic, I am concerned about the long-term impact on this generation and whether our society is ready to provide the support they need to become healthy, resilient, thriving adults.

While adolescent substance use was a significant public health concern before COVID-19, the pandemic has exacerbated many preexisting risk factors, such as adolescent stress, social isolation, limited school connection, unstructured time and boredom. These conditions are creating a new population of youth at risk for substance use while worsening use in those already misusing substances.

As a pediatrician, I screen my patients as part of every clinical visit and am able to observe signs of unhealthy behavior, such as changes in relationships, decline in academic performance and shifts in mood. In practice, I am finding higher rates of substance use – alcohol and vaping, mainly – among teens I serve. This is concerning on several fronts, including the risk that the earlier a child initiates substance use, the higher the likelihood of developing substance-related problems and addiction later in life. The reasons adolescents turn to substances can be complicated; however, understanding that underlying factors, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, can be contributors helps practitioners provide the proper treatment and support.

Health care is only one piece of the puzzle. Family and community – including schools, athletics, law enforcement, youth-serving organizations – each contribute their own critical supports for children and teens. We now need to reinforce the family and community support systems that have been deeply affected by the pandemic, as well.

For instance, most children and teens have spent an increased amount of time with their families over the past year. There may be several benefits to youth having shared more meals and family movie nights. But parents and caregivers themselves may not be in an optimum position to provide support because they are also struggling with their own stresses during the pandemic, including financial challenges, remote work and home schooling (to name a few). In some instances, children may not be sharing their own fears and feelings in order to protect the adults in their lives from worrying and adding to their stress.

I believe there is a shared opportunity for all adults to play a role in the health and well-being of our youth, especially as they return to a semblance of their pre-pandemic lives. We need a shared message without judgment that tells youth they have somewhere to go if they are at a crossroad and considering – or currently making – unhealthy choices. Whether it’s a coach inviting an athlete back to the team, a teacher who takes the extra time to work through missing homework assignments with their student, a mentor who accompanies a teen to ask for help or a community member who provides a safe space for a child – we all play a part in helping uplift this generation.

The reasons youth turn to substances and unhealthy activities is complicated. However, so many different contributing factors just means there are so many different opportunities for adults – for our society – to assist them. If you observe a change in behavior or notice a child struggling, please reach out. If appropriate, contact a health care provider or call 211 Maine.

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