Students At Elite High Schools More Likely To Struggle With Addiction

By Keri Blakinger 06/05/17

A new study examined the high rates of substance use in affluent New England high school students. 

Preparatory high school students sitting inside of a classroom studying.

Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer, as they say in the rooms. But now, a new study shows that students at elite high schools could be more prone than others to that particular breed of destruction. 

Teens from top high schools were up to three times as likely to end up battling substance use issues compared to their less-privileged peers, according to research published last month in Development and Psychopathology.

“We found alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among young adults who we initially studied as teenagers," said the study’s author, Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor 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 study, which followed a few hundred students in New England, started during their senior year of high school and continued with annual check-ins throughout college for one group, and from ages 23 to 27 for another group. 

For the most part, addiction rates were noticeably higher, but the phenomenon was most pronounced in the group researchers looked at later in life. 

"We found rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol among 19 to 24% of women in the older cohort by the age of 26, and 23 to 40% 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% among women (close to national norms) but 19 to 27 percent among men, or about twice as high as national norms."

The researchers attributed the increased addiction risk to a number of things, including a “work hard, play hard” attitude and easy ability to finance a budding interest in illicit substances. 

"Many kids in these communities have plenty of disposable income with which they can get high-quality fake IDs, as well as alcohol and both prescription and recreational drugs,” Luthar noted.

The pressure-cooker environment of top-tier schools and a laissez-faire parental attitude toward pot and alcohol use can exacerbate any developing drug problem, the researchers said. With multiple factors at play, there’s not a single clear solution.

“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,” she continued. 

“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."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.