Alcohol is the most widely used substance among America’s teens and young adults. Although great strides have been made over the last decades regarding alcohol and substance abuse programs, education and awareness, underage drinking and substance abuse continues to pose substantial health and safety risks. The average age for a first drink is 14, as unbelievable as that may seem. As we approach the end of the academic year with all of its traditional celebratory events such as graduations, proms and end of the year parties, the danger posed by underage drinking and/or substance abuse by teenagers and young adults increases substantially.
Every year, 4,358 young people die in alcohol-related deaths as a result of underage drinking. Alcohol-related deaths include alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, drowning; homicides and suicides, but the most common cause of death for teens at this time of year are car crashes. The tragic loss of life and the grief that overwhelms family and friends is always exacerbated by not only the age of these young victims, but also because of this particular time of year when milestones are being reached and accomplishments celebrated. These young people have made plans for college, designated career paths, and new directions for their lives. Their futures are looking bright and their families and friends have been bragging on their accomplishments, exchanging pictures and tweets by the millions, and then it is all cut short by the unimaginable horror of the loss of a life so full of promise and hope. The abrupt change of planning a funeral or memorial service rather than a graduation party is so tragically painful; it is something we really hate to even think about. Far too many parents, relatives and friends will find themselves in the center of this unfortunate set of circumstances this year in just a few days and weeks.
The truth remains that alcohol and substance abuse continue to be serious problems within our culture. This is especially true among our teens and young adults. It is at this time of year when we become acutely aware of the problem because of the horrible consequences that poor choices and poor decision-making cause when young people get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol. The dreaded phone call or knock on the door when law enforcement officers or medical staff have to deliver the information no one ever wants to hear. In the silent moment of disbelief and unspeakable pain, there are those who are left to mourn and pick up the scattered pieces of their lives; forever changed by a series of events that could have been different, if only alcohol hadn’t impaired the judgment of those young people involved in celebrating their big accomplishment and rite of passage.
There are many reasons why young people drink, easy access to alcohol, socialization, peer pressure, family history, depression, coping, other emotional problems, anxiety and many more. Many young people are engaged in these dangerous behaviors prior to the party season or end-of-year celebrations, but there are some who use the momentous occasion of prom or graduation to over indulge. Whatever the reasons, it is a dangerous end-of-year ritual in which far too many young people engage. It is highly risky behavior with the possibility of devastating and life-altering consequences. Open and honest discussion with your children is required. Knowing who is driving the car and what kind of adult supervision is happening at the celebratory events is essential to preventing a tragic outcome when what we want to do, especially at this time of year, is offer congratulations, applause and tears of joy…not the other kind of tears.