Teen Celebrity Drug & Alcohol Abuse: Drew Barrymore’s Not Alone

Like Drew Barrymore, U.S. teen substance abusers begin using drugs and alcohol at age 14

She looks like the epitome of the fresh-faced, innocent all-American girl-next-door, but Drew Barrymore is really more of a poster child for teenage drug addiction.

After making her film debut at five years old, she starred in her breakout role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, then quickly went on to become one of Hollywood’s most recognized child actors.

But her life quickly spiraled downward into drug and alcohol abuse. By the time she was nine, she was smoking cigarettes. At 11, she was drinking alcohol, at 12, smoking marijuana and at 13, snorting cocaine. This landed her a first stint at rehab, and at 14, a suicide attempt put her back in rehab. In 1990, Barrymore disclosed all this in her autobiography, Little Girl Lost.

Her eventual triumph over addiction laid the foundation for her success in Hollywood as both an actress and a director. Soon after she defeated addiction, she successfully made the transition from child star to adult actress with a number of films. And in 1995, she and a business partner formed the production company Flower Films, which went on to produce the films that catapulted her into stardom — Charlie’s Angels, 50 First Dates, and Music and Lyrics, as well as the cult film Donnie Darko. She received star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2007, Barrymore appeared on the cover of the People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful issue.

But when she wrote her biography in 1990, little did Barrymore know how closely she embodied the teenage drug dependent — nor how lucky she was to break the vicious grip of addiction.

What’s more, little did she know how “un-alone” she really was. A new study by French researchers uncovers a shocking reality in modern America: Barrymore was not only the archetype of a teenage drug dependent and neither was she as atypical as most Americans would like to believe.

Drug and alcohol abuse is more common among teenagers than previously thought, the study shows. Published April 3 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, the new study shows that:
• Almost four out of five teens had tried alcohol by the time they reached 18 — and more than 15 percent were abusing it.
• Almost half of all older teens — or 43 percent — used illicit drugs at least once by the time they reached 18 — and some 16 percent were abusing drugs.
• Drugs used included marijuana, cocaine, tranquilizers, stimulants and painkillers.
• Those who abused either drugs or alcohol began using them at age 14 or 15.

The study was conducted jointly by French researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Bordeaux in France and American researchers from the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Center for Mental Health.

The study — one of the first to track substance-abuse trajectories during this key period in a person’s life — also reveals that teenagers who got into trouble with school authorities or the law because of substance abuse had actually started drinking or doing drugs when they were as young as 14 or 15 years old.

What this suggests for concerned authorities is that prevention programs should begin early in adolescence — or before problems arise, rather than when abuse becomes obvious, says Joel Swendsen, the lead author and director of the Bordeaux-based research center.

“This is showing us that we should intervene well before 14 or 15 years old,” says Swendsen. “The earlier you can intervene, the bigger the payoff in terms of preventing these problems.”

The study was a new analysis of data culled from national face-to-face survey of 10,123 adolescents 13 to 18 years old in the United States, conducted between February 2001 and January 2004. Unlike previous reports on the same data that only looked back a year on student drug use, the new study looked at a longer period, the National Institutes of Health explains.

The new analysis found specifically that —

By late adolescence — 17 to 18 years old:
• 78.2 percent of all teenagers in the United States had consumed alcohol
• 47.1 percent had reached regular drinking levels defined by at least 12 drinks within a given year
• 15.1 percent met criteria for lifetime abuse
• 81.4 percent reported the opportunity to use illicit drugs
• 42.5 percent used it
• 16.4 percent were found to be drug abusers

The median age at onset was:
• 14 years for alcohol abuse with or without dependence
• 14 years for drug abuse with dependence
• 15 years for drug abuse without dependence
Marijuana was the most common type of drug used, followed by prescription drugs.

• Of 3,700 teens between the ages of 13 and 14, about 10 percent were drinking alcohol regularly — defined as 12 drinks in a year. That number jumped to about half of about 2,300 17- to 18-year-olds.
• Of the 13- and 14-year olds, one in ten said they used at least one such drug, and that number increased to about 40 percent in among older teenagers.

Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York says the numbers are consistent with past research.

She also says the findings are alarming because starting to use potentially addictive substances is particularly dangerous for younger people whose brains are still developing. Foster wasn’t involved in the study.

“There’s really a type of rewiring that goes on with continued use than can result in an increased interest in using and an inability to stop using,” she warns.

“The reason we worry about it is that the earlier they use these substances the earlier they become addicted to it,” she tells Reuters Health.

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