Approximately 1 in every 10 teenagers with mental health problems drinks alcohol, smokes tobacco and uses cannabis, Australian researchers reported in the journal BMJ Open. The authors believe these behaviors contribute to poor mental and physical health.

According to evidence from several studies, teenagers who abuse substances early in life are more likely to have mental ill health, and vice-versa.

The authors gathered and examined data on over 2,000 people aged from 12 to 30 years. They were all part of the “National Mental Health Headspace Programme” in Sydney.

Of those who sought help for various mental health issues, many reported on their weekly consumption of cannabis, tobacco and alcohol. Five-hundred of them provided detailed data on their drinking habits.

Below are some data the authors reported:

  • 12% of 12 to 17 year olds (young teens) consumed alcoholic beverages at least once weekly
  • 39% of 18 to 19 years olds (older teens) drank alcohol at least once a week
  • Nearly half of those aged 20 to 30 drank weekly
  • Young teens with mental health issues were twice as likely to report drinking alcohol every week than other children of their age
  • A sizeable proportion of those who provided detailed information on how much they drank were “risky drinkers”
  • Nearly half of all those with bipolar disorder were risky drinkers
  • 7% of younger teens used cannabis at least once weekly
  • 14% of older teens consumed cannabis at least once a week
  • 18% of 20 to 30 year olds used cannabis at least once a week
  • Among the 12 to 17 year olds, 3.6% said they smoked cannabis every day, while 1.5% said they drank alcohol every day
  • Among the 18 to 19 year olds, 8.8% reported smoking cannabis daily, while 6% drank alcohol every day
  • 23% of the younger teens smoked cigarettes every day
  • 36% of the older teens smoked cigarettes daily
  • 41% of the 20 to 30 year olds smoked cigarettes daily

These patterns started off when the children were aged 15 (average). Those who used any or all three substances were more likely to be older, male and have bipolar or psychotic disorders.

The authors stressed that those with mental health issues have a considerably higher risk of developing serious health problems and dying prematurely.

The authors wrote:

“Given the comorbidity with significant mental health problems, these patterns of substance use are likely to contribute to increased risk of poor physical and/or mental health outcomes.”

The patterns that were observed among the younger teens were “particularly notable”.

It might be better for overall outcomes to bring mental health, drug and alcohol services together, the researchers suggest. Traditionally they have tended to be separate entities.

A report from the Massachusetts General Hospital found that teenagers with bipolar disorder are at a greater risk of substance abuse and cigarette smoking than their peers without the disorder.

As is the case with the people in this study, it appears that cannabis consumption has risen while the opposite has occurred with alcohol among teenagers in various countries. A report issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, USA, found that cigarette and alcohol consumption among 14, 16 and 18 year olds are at their lowest since 1975, while cannabis smoking and non-medical prescription drug usage have increased.

Writtten by Christian Nordqvist