By Sarah McGowan, TT Writer and Producer

As American as apple pie, there exists a lamentable ethos in the U.S. that tells each and every one of us a terrible social lie: pain is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

Those common feelings that we all experience in life – feelings of hopelessness, frustration, alienation, anxiety, stress and anger – have little place in the cultural landscape that we help create. Whether we do it intentionally by focusing on productivity, accumulation of wealth and material security at the expense of all else, or simply by avoiding the tough talks with friends going through hard times – we’re all guilty.

The holidays are a notoriously dangerous vortex of emotional landmines and mark a noticeable spike in alcohol and drug use, both for adults and teens. At a time when we’re told we should feel happy and celebrate, many of us struggle with mounting social pressure, anxiety, family dynamics, and a crippling loneliness when we see others acting, feeling and doing better than we are.

To cope with the pain, we turn to a quick fix, but the source of our distress remains untouched.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that last year over 20 million Americans (ages 12 and older) suffered from drug and alcohol dependence, with staggeringly high drug dependency rates for youth ages 12-17 (6.9%) and young adults ages 18-25 (18.6%).

If the health of our communities is only as strong as the health of its individual members, what does this say about the overall wellbeing of our society? Perhaps more poignantly, what does this say about our commitment to our youth?

Shannon Thompson views this epidemic through the lens of ecology, or the biological perspective that considers how organisms (humans) interact with one another and their surroundings (school, home, work, community). “There’s a dynamic [relationship] between our inner and outer ecologies,” she explains. “We have to start to understand how and why forces come together driving us to do certain things.”

For the last two and a half decades Thompson has worked with youth at-risk and is the founder of Shakti Rising, a social change organization that works to transform the lives of women, girls, and the larger community through health, education and leadership development. She says our youth are so often viewed as “the problem” when really they are society’s “canary in the coal mine.” Their health is merely a predictor for how the rest of us are doing.

“There are extreme deficits in our communities,” says Thompson. “We’re missing the boat on how to engage this segment of our population and missing the point that youth are meaningful resources in society.” As young people begin to develop their sense of individuality, personal power and resilience, society affords them few significant ways to engage in their communities.

“We, as a culture, have evolved into seeing adolescence as a throwaway time. It was not that long ago that young people had more meaningful places at-large in culture,” she explains. “They had jobs, and for better or worse, some were starting young families.”

But somewhere along the line, we traded meaningful engagement for a nebulous limbo that hasn’t served our young people well. And rather than deal with the big questions that teens are naturally asking of themselves and their elders, we find it easier to look the other way and change the subject.

“What we face about teen addictions, eating disorders, depression and violence – it really scares us,” she continues. “But in our hearts, we know, ‘This is not our best. This is not all that we can be.’”

The harsh truth is, the U.S. has made stress a way of life. Thompson points to a litany of consequences resulting from our cultural values that keep us from knitting a stronger social fabric: declining adult productivity, unprecedented rates of unhappiness, depression, and eating disorders – just to name a few. “Generally speaking,” she says, “something isn’t working.”

As a result, we have adopted a lot of habits (numbing, denying, amplifying or inhibiting) to do what’s easiest, push the pain away and deny there’s even a problem.

“In adolescence, when there’s already an emotional volatility, there’s a coming into a lot of boundary pushing experiences.” Thompson says that individually, there’s a natural tendency toward exploration, while socially we err on the side of repression. “You put all those factors together and it makes sense that youth are self-medicating.”

But the notion of sublimating what ails us is not just a coping mechanism for young people or even “addicts” – it’s a paradigm that’s as mainstream as popping aspirin when we get a headache.

For all of modern medicine’s gifts to society, it has come at a great price. Though we are thankfully more aware of mental illness in its many manifestations and have pharmaceuticals that help hundreds of thousands to live healthier, more productive lives, the notion that “if you hurt, just take something” has reached new heights. And, according to Thompson, it has promoted a wholesale attitude that legitimizes certain kinds of drug use and abuse, namely prescriptions taken for non-medical purposes.

More accessible than alcohol, easier to score than weed, ecstasy, cocaine or amphetamines, and certainly more covert than sneaking cigarettes, prescription pills are just a medicine cabinet away for most teens.

Readily available, effective and culturally sanctioned, prescription pills have become the drugs of choice for many Americans.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States.” And the numbers show the tragic effects for all of us. Accidental overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined.

Prescribed to relieve acute and chronic pain, opioids produce a euphoric effect that can also ease the pain of social anxiety, anger and hopelessness. But when taken for anything other than pain relief, they can quickly entice the user into a spiral of addiction, making quitting a miserable struggle with physical withdrawal.

Thompson says youth, lacking the decision making capacity and coping skills needed to make healthy choices often fall into this insidious trap. “Kids feel like, if doctors prescribed it they can tell themselves: ‘If it’s legal, it’s socially sanctioned, then I’ll be ok, I’m not in trouble, I won’t get addicted,” she explains.

To teens (and arguably many of us adults), illegal means bad and legal means good. But it’s never that simple. Add to that our cultural stance on pharmaceuticals and the line between proper and improper use becomes even more skewed.

Uniquely predisposed to experience many of the risk factors that lead us toward substance abuse, without the right tools, teens can and will often make decisions that hardly yield positive results.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, on average, every day 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high for the first time. “Kids are going to do what works,” agrees Thompson, “and self-medicating works.”

“Kids see so many adults using prescriptions and seeming to be fine. They don’t know how to tell the difference in some ways,” she explains. “There’s so much power in our social sanctions. We don’t teach young people how to think and develop [good judgment] so they can make intelligent choices about taking care of themselves.”

Partly this is due to the fact that our society doesn’t entertain many meaningful discussions about why and how and when we choose to medicate. But the conversation couldn’t come at a more critical time for youth. Thompson says that teens are at the most risk for addiction in the future depending on the choices they make now.

From the mood swings (“storm and stress”) that often accompany hormonal changes in the body, to acting impulsively as their prefrontal cortex continues to develop the link between action and consequence, to succumbing to peer pressure, teens are regularly taking risks as part of normal, healthy development.

“Adolescence is a really important time for the foundations that will determine how we’re going to live in adulthood, and frankly, how we will cope.” Thompson says that if all of these foundations are formed around high-risk substance using, teens are not learning how to establish the “really healthy, strong relationships that will support them throughout life.”

Youth today are staring down the barrel of an information-heavy, but substantively lacking future. And we’re simply not doing a good enough job of helping them develop the tools to determine what information is most useful and how to create more meaning in their lives.

But for all the tragedy that comes with losing our way along the path of life, Thompson firmly believes in the power of transformation. She embraces opportunity rather than resignation.

“When it is presented with adaptability and how to build it emotionally, dealing with stress can be really productive and creative,” she says excitedly.

“As adults, we have to stop treating kids like they don’t know what’s up. We have to be honest and open. We have to listen and be willing to hear and say the hard things – to respond, not just react. We have to listen deeply so we can become partners in helping them. We have to get better at building community so we remember that we’re not alone. And we must fail forward. This is how we build resilience and role model that to our youth.”

Her parting words are so simple, yet reveal the most elegant and empowering truth: “Love is a powerful force.” In order to thrive, she says, you have to have stake in a meaningful life.

It’s up to each of us to create this deep meaning for ourselves because when we do, we mirror that to the rest of our communities. When we are fulfilled, healthy and connected to each other, we in turn create hope where once there was none, laying the path for the younger generations to follow.


For more tips, strategies and activities that will help you engage your teens in more meaningful dialog and exploration about who they are, how they fit into the world and what they want for their future, BUY THE BOOK: Teen Truth – Why Youth Have Something to Hide. To learn more about TT: Drugs and Alcohol, BOOK THE EXPERIENCE or SEE THE AWARD-WINNING FILM.

For more information on Shannon Thompson and her work with at-risk youth and girls, visit their website at, Facebook page, and Shannon’s blog,

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol dependence, we encourage you to take a courageous step and do something to help. There are many resources available for information and treatment:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse

The Center for Disease Control

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

[Image courtesy of Flickr user CarbonNYC]