Drinking Now, Problems Later Natural Course of Alcohol Use Disorders from Adolescence to Young Adulthood

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Paul Rohde, Peter Lewinsohn, Christopher Kahler, John Seeley and Richard Brown

Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

January 2001, Vol. 40, pp. 83-90

Free copy from Dr. Rohde at paulr@ori.org or at Oregon

Research Institute, 1715

Franklin Boulevard,

Eugene, OR 97403

Boys will be boys, teenagers will drink, and it's hard for many adults to take teen drinking very seriously. A new study indicates that they should.

This study followed almost 1,000 adolescents from high school through age 24. The study started with interviews of more than 1,700 youths between the ages of 14 and 18, who were randomly selected from nine high schools in Oregon in 1987. The adolescents were interviewed at the start of the study and again within a year, and a randomly selected group with no history of mental disorders was interviewed by telephone when they reached their 24th birthday between 1993-1999.

The teenagers were classified into three groups for the study: 1) those with no problem use of alcohol; 2) problem drinkers with one or two symptoms; and 3) those with a diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence.

The analysis is very technical and difficult to read, but the bottom line is that teen drinking predicts problems in adulthood. Adolescents who were problem drinkers tended to grow up to be adults who were problem drinkers, and were also more likely to be depressed, anxious, antisocial, and to have problems with other types of substance abuse. Even those with only one or two symptoms of drinking problems as adolescents tended to grow up to have more serious alcohol problems than those who had no symptoms, and to have problems with other forms of substance abuse, depression, and antisocial personality symptoms.

The implications for youth workers are clear: don't laugh off or ignore drinking problems among teenagers, because they are often symptoms of more serious problems now and in the future. Alcohol abuse does not occur in isolation and it occurs on a continuum, but even teens with relatively minor problems are at risk for disaster. Children of alcoholic fathers were found to be at especially high risk for future alcoholism, but all teens with symptoms of drinking problems should get help from those who are trained to treat mental illness or substance abuse.  And from a policy perspective, that means there is a need for better access to such services.