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Kids in High-Achieving Schools Face Addiction in Early Adulthood

Kids in High-Achieving Schools Face Addiction in Early Adulthood

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

It is far from what most people expect. After all, they have what most people dream of– an affluent lifestyle along with the opportunity to attend elite high schools. Often, they are groomed to go to the top colleges across the nation.

But it turns out, these ‘privileged’ American high school students start off strong but are later likely to develop substance abuse issues, according to new research.  In the beginning, these students perform exceedingly well. They earn good grades and excel in various extracurricular activities. Later on, things start to spiral out of control.

“We found alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among young adults who we initially studied as teenagers,” said Suniya Luthar, lead researcher, and professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.  “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.”

The paper titled “Adolescents from upper-middle-class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood” appears in the current issue of Development and Psychopathology.

In the article, the authors describe a study regarding two groups of students in affluent communities.  Researchers started assessing the students as high school seniors and then analyzed them annually across four college years and ages 23 to 27.  The age groups were divided into younger cohorts and older cohorts.

What they found was fascinating:

“We found rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol among 19 to 24 percent of women in the older cohort by the age of 26, and 23 to 40 percent among men. These rates were 3 and 2 times as high respectively, as compared to national norms,” Luthar said. “Among the younger cohort by the age of 22 years, rates of addiction were between 11 and 16 percent among women (close to national norms) but 19 to 27 percent among men, or about twice as high as national norms.”

Luthar says that through analyzing the lives of these adolescents, they were able to understand these high rates of addiction.

The younger group studies attended the best schools in the region. In general, these students had an enormous amount of pressure to succeed and go to very selective universities. Many came to live by the “I can, therefore I must” ideology and “we work hard, and we play hard” became a reality after the hard work.

By the time these students reach college and early adulthood, they are likely craving to have the fun they missed in their early years. Therefore, the desire to drink, party and abuse substances are high.

Furthermore, with affluence, comes the ability to obtain these drugs relatively easy.

“Many kids in these communities have plenty of disposable income with which they can get high-quality fake ID’s, as well as alcohol and both prescription and recreational drugs.”

Parents have a false sense of security regarding their kids because they are continuing to do well in school despite the drug use, the study notes. As a result, the parents become more relax about any alcohol or marijuana use.

Another factor is the widespread peer approval for substance use. College is known as a time known for experimentation and high consumption of alcohol.

So what can be done to reverse this trend?

“This is a problem that derives from multiple levels of influence, so we’re going to need interventions at multiple levels to tackle it,” Luthar said.

“At the level of the kids themselves and their parents, it will be important to disseminate research findings — based on rigorous scientific data — that messing with drugs and alcohol really should not be trivialized as just something all kids do,” Luthar said. “The earlier children start to use and the more frequently they do, the more likely it is that they will develop addictions down the line.”

Some strategies Luthar suggested were more education programs to educate on the risks involved with drug and alcohol use.  Luthar says using solid evidence may work for students with academic frames of mind.

“For high-achieving and ambitious youngsters, it could actually be persuasive to share scientific data showing that in their own communities the statistical odds of developing serious problems of addiction are two to three times higher than norms. And that it truly just takes one event of being arrested with cocaine, or hurting someone in a drunken car accident, to derail the high profile positions of leadership and influence toward which they are working so hard for the future.”

Another challenge is reducing the enormous pressure these kids have in regards to getting into the most selective universities.

“As long as university admissions processes continue to be as they are — increasingly smaller number of admits per applications and requiring impossible resumes — these young people will continue to be frenetic in pursuing those coveted spots — and many will continue to self-medicate as a result,” explained Luthar.

Luthar also believes these kids need role models who did not go to an elite university, but instead picked a college because it felt right for them, yet were highly successful later in life.

“It shows that there is, in fact, life, wisdom, financial solvency, creativity, and yes, happiness, beyond the walls of the Ivy Leagues,” Luthar said.

Lastly, leaders need to take the risks youth seriously at high-achieving schools are facing. Decades ago, children who grew up in poverty were more at risk, however now youth from a multitude of the background are being affected. Luthar states the need to understand the youth in these affluent communities more.

“We now need the same dedicated research on kids who grow up in pressure- cooker, high achieving schools,” Luthar said.


Did you know about the issues students from these communities face? How should they be addressed? This study just confirms that addiction can affect all communities. It does not discriminate. Therefore, if you are struggling with addiction or mental illness, do not feel alone. We are here to help.

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