Impact of Substance Use Disorder on Teens at Elite High Schools

Teens struggling with Medication-Assisted Treatment and it's repercussions

Contributor: Megan Wilson, BS, CADC, Timberline Knolls Residential Center

There are multiple factors that influence a person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder (SUD), including biological components and environmental issues. The reality is that addiction does not discriminate based on gender, race, culture, or even socioeconomic status.

Under the right conditions, any individual may be susceptible to developing a SUD. In fact, recent research has highlighted one specific factor that may increase the risk of drug addiction among teenagers, specifically in teens growing up in more affluent communities.

Increased Risk of Developing a Substance Use Disorder

New research recently published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology analyzed the frequency of alcohol and drug use, as well as diagnoses of abuse and dependence, among upper-middle-class youth [1].

Researchers studied more than 500 students from affluent communities in the Northeast, completing the initial assessment when students were high school seniors and for each year through the age of 27.

At the onset of the initial assessments, student participants were all in attendance at the highest rated schools in the region and from families in which the median income was generally higher than the national norms.

Interestingly, researchers found that the rates of developing a substance use disorder, such as addiction to drugs or alcohol, among female and male participants to be three and two times as high as the national norms [1].

In regard to the findings from this study, lead researcher and professor of psychology at Arizona State University, Suniya Luther, noted, “We found alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among young adults who were initially studied as teenagers. 

Group of Teens happy they are not developing a substance use disorder

Results showed that among both men and women and across annual assessments, these young adults had substantial elevations, relative to national norms, in frequency of several indicators – drinking to intoxication and of using marijuana, stimulants such as Adderall, cocaine and club drugs such as ecstasy [2].”

In analyzing data gathered from this study, researchers hypothesized that several factors may contribute to increased risk of SUDs among these privileged youth, including greater access to disposable income for purchasing recreational and prescription drugs, as well as increased pressure to be high-achieving.

Luther and researchers further surmised that early exposure and experimenting with drugs among affluent youth could lead this population to be at the highest risk for addiction in adulthood [2].

Treatment and Prevention Measures

The important information gathered from this study can be helpful in determining more effective preventative measures for this specific population of teenagers and young adults who are at risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Teen stressed about drinking and developing a substance use disorderIntervention strategies should continue to be implemented at multiple levels, including in the public health sector, to educate parents, families, caregivers, and educators about these risks, particularly among more affluent communities and schools where teenagers may have increased susceptibility.

Learning to identify the early warning signs of SUDs among high school and college students can also be helpful for implementing early addiction treatment interventions.


[1]: Suniya S. Luthar, et al. Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood. Development and Psychopathology. DOI: Published online: 31 May 2017
[2]: Arizona State University, “Kids in high-achieving schools: Addiction down the road?”, Accessed 5 June 2017

About the Author:

Megan Wilson photo

Megan Wilson, BS, CADC has been working at Timberline Knolls since 2013.  She facilitates psycho-educational group therapy, completes substance use assessments, and takes on the leadership role of the Addictions Specialist team.

She also individually meets with residents to support a better understanding and application of 12-step recovery.

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 18, 2017
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 12, 2021
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.