Knowledge is Power


            The percentage of teens using illicit substances dropped significantly in 2021 as the pandemic forced them into isolating from friends, classrooms and extracurricular activities. Alcohol, marijuana and nicotine vaping – the most commonly used substances by teens all showed declines from 2020.

            These findings were reported by a Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research –

            The survey is given annually to students in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades. In addition to gathering data on substance use, the survey records teen’s perception of harm caused by using substances, whether they disapprove of using substances and how teens view the availability of drugs.

            Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, observed, “We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period.” She added, “These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic which caused seismic shifts in the day-to-day lives of adolescents.”

            Alcohol consumption decreased significantly for tenth and twelfth grade students with a smaller decrease for eighth graders. In 2021, 47 percent of seniors reported drinking alcohol compared to 55 percent the previous year. Among tenth grade students, 29 percent reported drinking compared to 41 percent in 2020. Eighth graders also reported a decline in drinking with 17 percent saying they drank in 2021 compared to 21 percent in 2020.

            Alcohol intoxication (reported as being drunk) also dropped significantly among all three grades. For example, in 2021, 29 percent of seniors said they’d been “drunk” compared to 37 percent in 2020. Among tenth graders, 13 percent reported being drunk compared to 23 percent the previous year. Alcohol intoxication also dropped among eighth graders. In 2021, 6 percent said they’d been drunk compared to 8 percent in 2020.

            Marijuana, one of the most popular illicit drugs use by teens, declined significantly among all three grades. In 2021, 31 percent of seniors used marijuana compared to 35 percent the previous year. Seventeen percent of tenth graders used the drug compared to 28 percent in 2020 and eighth grade use declined from 11 percent to 7 percent in 2021.

            For three years, from 2017 to 2019 the percentage of teens vaping substances like marijuana and nicotine increased at alarming rates. For example, the percent of eighth graders vaping increased from 13 percent to 20 percent; the percent of tenth graders vaping increased from 24 percent to 36 percent and the percent of seniors vaping went from 28 percent to 41 percent. In 2020 the percentages stabilized and in 2021 showed a significant decline.

            While declining in 2021, vaping continues to be an important issue. Today, nearly 32 percent of high school seniors, 22 percent of 10th graders and 13 percent of eighth graders admit to vaping. The majority of them prefer to vape nicotine, followed by marijuana.


            Two issues drive teen substance use: drug availability and perception of risk.

            Availability: Today’s teens know that it is far too easy to obtain substances. For example, 70 percent of high school seniors say marijuana is either “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. Seventy-seven percent say getting their hands on alcohol is very easy and twenty-one percent of seniors believe it is easy to find MDMA (ecstasy). Thirty percent say getting their hands on amphetamines is also very easy.

            Perhaps more alarming, 27 percent of eighth graders said getting ahold of a drug like marijuana is either fairly easy or very easy to do. And nearly 50 percent said alcohol is easy to find.

            In addition to teens knowing how easy it is to obtain substances, they don’t believe substances like alcohol or marijuana are very harmful. Only 22 percent of high school seniors said using marijuana “regularly” was a great risk. Only 22 percent said having one or two drinks of alcohol nearly every day involves a great risk. Perhaps more alarming, only 34 percent said it is risky to “have five or more drinks once or twice each weekend.”

            When teens find that it is easy for them to obtain alcohol and drugs and they don’t see much harm in using them, the risk for increased substance abuse increases.

            Richard Miech, a principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, said “These declines are an unintended consequence of the pandemic. Among the many disruptions adolescents have experienced as a result of the pandemic are disruptions in their ability to get drugs, disruptions in their ability to use drugs outside of parental supervision, and disruptions in peer groups that encourage drug use.”

            He also noted “It is possible that this delayed onset of drug use will lower these adolescents’ levels of drug use for the rest of their lives…In contrast, it is also possible that these declines will be fleeting, and drug use may surge among these adolescents once they are free of the constraints imposed by the pandemic.” Only time will tell if the significant decline in teen substance use observed in 2021 will carry over to 2022.

            “Moving forward” according to Dr. Vokow, “it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use – whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure, or other factors – and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.”

Teen Mental Health Crisis Worsens During Pandemic

While the pandemic significantly curtailed teen illicit substance use, the same cannot be said about the mental health issues facing today’s youth. Both the United States Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health[1] and the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future[2] reports cite an alarming trend in teen mental health issues.

            Mental health challenges are nothing new for the teen population. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic the nation was in the midst of an alarming youth mental health crisis. Nearly 20 percent of children ages 3-17 reported having mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorders and nearly one-half of these children did not receive adequate treatment.

            National surveys continue to show increases in teen mental health issues. For example, from 2009 to 2019 there was a 40 percent increase in high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and those teens seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36 percent. Sadly, between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 increased by 57 percent.

            Mental health issues among teens varies across subpopulations. For example, girls are much more prone to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression or an eating disorder. Boys are more likely to die by suicide or be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. The Surgeon General’s report noted, “In recent years, suicide rates among Black children (below age 13) have been increasing rapidly, with Black children nearly twice a likely to die by suicide than White children.”

            During most of the pandemic teens were confronted with unprecedented challenges. The pandemic dramatically changed their lives and the lives of their families. Children were pulled away from their classrooms, their friends and nearly all athletic and social events. Many were isolated at home struggling with on-line courses and interaction with peers was mostly limited to social media.

            Since the beginning of the pandemic adolescent depression, anxiety and many other mental health disorders increased. A recent study of 80,000 youth “found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.”

            Perhaps most alarming is clinical data that found “In early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019.”

            These findings are consistent with survey results obtained by the Monitoring the Future 2021 survey of youth. While the survey found a significant decrease in teen illicit substance use during 2021, teens reported increases in mental health issues since the pandemic began. Students in grades eight, ten and twelve all reported increases in various emotions. These included feeling anxious, angry, annoyed or irritable, feeling bored, sad, lonely, depressed, worried and experiencing sleep problems. They also reported difficulties being interested in normal activities and difficulties concentrating. Students reported significant increases for each of these mental health issues in all three grades.

            While the long-term impact of the pandemic on adolescent mental health is not yet fully understood, the Surgeon General’s report notes “there is some cause for optimism.” Over 50 years of research has shown us that while distress symptoms are common during disasters, “most people cope well and do not go on to develop mental health disorders.”


[1] U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health.

[2] University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future 2021 Survey Results,

10 Questions to Ask as Part of a Mental Health Check-In

Newport Academy

Asking specific questions can help parents perform an accurate mental health check and may also help teens to recognize and manage emotions. Here are 10 emotional check-in questions to ask as part of a mental health temperature check-in:

  1. What three words best describe how you’re feeling right now?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, going from negative to positive, what number best describes your state of mind?
  3. Fill in the blank: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is…..
  4. If your feelings were weather, what kind of day would it be outside?
  5. If your life was a movie, what songs would be on the soundtrack right now?
  6. What would you like to have less of in your life right now?
  7. What would you like to have more of in your life right now?
  8. Tell me about the best thing and the worst thing that happened to you this week
  9. What’s the hardest part about being you right now?
  10. How can I support you better?


Depending on your teen’s personality and communication style, some of these emotional check-in questions might be more effective than others in eliciting answers that illuminate their state of