12/16/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2014

School Pressure: Rx to Self-Medicate?

Too much academic pressure can sometimes lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Many argue with me that it's the other way around. That alcohol use can lead to poor grades, loss of interest in school, feelings of hopelessness. I know there is an argument for that, too, but it's not what I see. We may be talking about two different groups of teens. That's another discussion.

Seems to me that the school pressures are increasing by the day. The schools have the best of intentions and work within the system they are given, but it's broken. Pressure from school to make the grades; pressure to go to college; pressure from many parents to get into the best colleges; pressure to be in extracurriculars; pressure to live a life that sometimes disrupts their true identity; all hang heavy over many teens' outlooks.

I often ask my clients what is it that is truly you? I can't count the number of times I hear a statement like this. "My dream is to be in sports, maybe a basketball talent scout, or a baseball team's general manager one day, but it's just not realistic. So I'm thinking about going into accounting, law or maybe becoming a doctor."

Now these are all great professions if it's what he or she wants, but what if your son or daughter doesn't? What if he or she hears the beat of a different drummer? He or she needs the freedom to listen to his or her own heart, and follow what it tells him or her to do. To find his or her own passion as he or she moves forward.

My concern is that this is what they've heard from school, family, friends... but not from their own hearts.

We don't intend to push them in the direction that we want for them but it's pretty easy to do without realizing it. I hear teens discussing their futures based on the criteria of others. I watch their reactions, their overwhelm, their desperation, their resignation. This pressure can be crushing, and again taking them away from their true identities.

The idea of being realistic squashes the identity of many teens and pushes them to lives that are just not right for them.

The typical "reasons" that we've all heard are not necessarily the reasons these kids drink. When I sit down with a client and we get into a discussion, the real reasons become clear.

Most of the time, it's the pressure, the stress of living in this chaotic world, and it doesn't happen overnight. It's pressure that has been building up from the time they were in the first grade.

The pressure has built and built until teens are looking for a way to escape. Drugs and alcohol offer one form of escape. The further the teen moves away from who they really are and from what they really want, the more prone they are to abuse substances.

What I often see is that when these teens aren't able to live as themselves, the person they really are, and the pressures around them build and build... they sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol.

According to The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VIII: Teens and Parents, an annual back-to-school survey conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. "High stress teens are twice as likely as low stress teens to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs."

Academic pressure sometimes pushes teens to drink and use drugs.

With teens who are always over-extended in school and extracurricular activities, their schedules are just too much. When I ask the question: "Why drink?" The answer is almost always, "I need to take a break from the pressure." "I just can't take it anymore."

Some teens don't know how to live in this world of chaos without checking out, so they numb themselves enough to get a break from the pressure for even an hour or two.

This is ridiculous. What needs to change? It's not just school pressure, it comes from the community, and a lot comes from stories about how we're "supposed" to live our lives.
We need to help these kids understand there are no "s'posed to's."

Our teens need to shift their attention to begin to learn that this life is theirs, and they need to begin to build the necessary skills to live it. This includes determining which people bring significant value to their lives -- the ones who just "get it." The people who can help guide but allow the teen to do the work.

What I've learned in my work is that teens have strengths buried deeply in them. It's often my job to help them get to that place where they can once again recognize that these strengths are there. Then we can build on them and so much more is possible:

  • Drugs and alcohol aren't necessary.
  • Checking out isn't necessary.
  • Living a life that's true to you is.
  • So build a life that's true to you.
  • There's no need for drugs when you're living a life that's true to who you really are.

When we're guided to a place where we let go of everyone else's ideas on how we should live and begin to live our own story, the urge for alcohol and drugs may disappear. In its place is a love for life, the passion to explore, and the hope of finding our place and purpose in this world.