BEE HEARD: Why are teen brains particularly vulnerable to substance abuse?

Native Connections

A teen brain vs. an adult brainYou may be familiar with a something called dopamine. It’s a feel-good chemical messenger that our brains release when we do things that bring us pleasure such as exercising, eating a delicious meal, or spending time with a loved one. It is also released when you use substances such as nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs (Addiction Policy Forum, 2019).  In a teen brain dopamine is released even more easily than in an adult brain. For instance, teens show an increase in dopamine release when they are spending time hanging out with friends. This could be one reason why peer friendships are so important to teens, and in relation to substance use, why teens use with and around their peers (Penn State Pro Wellness, 2018) 

The tricky thing about the release of dopamine when you are using substances is that these substances start to “hijack” your brain. In other words, every time you use, you are searching for that happy feeling you might have felt the first time you felt a high.  However, it gets harder and harder to achieve this same high each time (Addiction Policy Forum, 2019). This is what is often referred to as tolerance (Dana Foundation, 2020). Substance abuse also hijacks your brain in a way that takes all those things that used to make you feel good, like the exercise, eating delicious foods, and spending time with people you care about, and replaces them with a craving to use.  Instead of getting that feeling of pleasure you used to get when you did those things, your brain is working to chase a high that becomes harder and harder to achieve, while slowly doing long term damage to a sensitive and developing brain (Addiction Policy Forum, 2019) 

Brain development in young peopleIt can be hard to be a teen. There are many changes happening biologically and socially that can feel particularly overwhelming. Often teens get a bad rap for being impulsive, reckless, and moody. While these things can be true, there is a lot happening with regards to brain development that contributes to this. One thing that is important to note is that for most people, the brain isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25. Therefore, there is a great amount of time during an individual’s formative years where the brain is particularly vulnerable to the damage that substance abuse can cause.  

During this time prior to the brain being fully developed, one of the main parts of the brain that is still forming is called the pre-fontal cortex. This part of the brain impacts things such as impulse control and decision making. When substance use is added to the mix this can have long term effects on the brain and impact these things, as well as memory, social skills, and increasing the likelihood of addiction (Addiction Policy Forum, 2019). Research shows that when a youth starts using substance while their brain is still developing vs. when an individual starts to use as an adult, the likelihood of addiction increases significantly (World Science Festival, 2014) 

The young adult and teenage years are an important time: It is important to recognize that, although this time in a young person’s life can be challenging, it should be honored just as any other phase of life is honored. Although there are negative aspects associated with this time in a young person’s development, there are also many positive things being explored during this period. For many young people, it can be a time of discovery, idealism, and social learning that will help develop the adult they will become in the future and in turn their role in our greater society. Therefore, it is important to nurture and support our youth during these years. 

How to get supportThere are many individual factors to consider when talking about substance abuse. Things such as family history of substance use, personality traits, and environment can all contribute to why one person can use substances and not become addicted vs. someone else who can become addicted to a substance after their first time trying it (Addiction Policy Forum, 2019) 

It is important to keep in mind that it is not as easy as having more willpower or deciding not to use alcohol and drugs.  Substance abuse often requires additional support and interventions to begin to heal, just as another type of disease would require. Over time and with treatment, in many cases, the brain can begin to repair the damage that was caused by substance abuse. Whether it is joining a support group, attending therapy, or going to a treatment center, there are many options for someone who is struggling to get support (Dana Foundation, 2020) 

As a behavioral health therapist with Native Connections, one of our main goals is to support youth and teens to prevent substance abuse. If you are struggling with substance abuse or feel as though this might be a risk to you, please reach out to our behavioral health department at 970-563-5700 or myself at 907-563-2297. 


  • Addiction Policy Forum. (2019, June 3). Addiction & the Brain-For Kids!: YouTube. 
  • Dana Foundation. (2020, January 9). How Addiction Affects the Brain: YouTube. 
  •  Penn State PRO Wellness. (2018, March 12). Teen Health: Substance Use and Abuse: YouTube. 
  • World Science Festival. (2014, September 8). The Teenage Brain Is Primed for Addiction: YouTube. 


EXCITING NEWS!  The Behavioral Health Division will be opening our new building at 4101 CR 222 Durango, CO 81303 very soon!! For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact us at 970-563-5700. We look forward to seeing you all very soon!  

Want to help and be a part of the change? Looking for community members and youth to join the Prevention Coalition tasked to reduce youth substance usage, eliminate mental health stigma, and start the discussion around suicide and prevention.  

Upcoming Prevention Coalition MeetingsWe are going virtual! For more information please contact Precious Collins, Native Connections Program Coordinator for more information 970-563-2487.  

 Upcoming Community Events: The Southern Ute Native Connections Program is working to put together a virtual talking circle for teens lead by Stephanie Garcia, Native Connections Behavioral Health Therapist and Lisa Pratchett, Licensed Professional School Counselor. Our fist talking circle will be for youth in grades 9-12. More on that to come, so be on the lookout for information posted in the Drum. If you have any questions or feel this is something you may be interested in, please contact Stephanie Garcia at 970-563-2297. 



  • Southern Ute Health Center – Behavioral Health Division: 69 Capote Drive, Ignacio, CO 970-563-4581. For local Native Americans. We are here to support mental health, substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery. Please call to schedule an appointment to talk to someone.   
  • Southern Ute Division of Social Services: 116 Capote Drive, Ignacio, CO 970-563-2331 for local Native Americans needing assistance with child welfare needs and family support.  
  • Southern Ute Police Department – Anonymous Tip Hotline: Do you have information about a crime? Please call 970-563-4999. This “Tip Line” was designed to allow you the ability to provide law enforcement with information, anonymously if need be, regarding criminal, drug, or suspicious activity. The “Tip Line” is monitored around the clock by SUPD Investigators, but it DOES NOT replace 9-1-1 or the non-emergency police number 970-563-4401. 
  • St Ignatius Catholic Church: Pastor Cesar Arras, 14826 CO-172, Ignacio, CO 970-563-4241. 
  • Ignacio Community Church: Pastor Randall Haynes 405 Browning Ave, Ignacio, CO 970-759-3633  
  • Second Wind Fund of the Four Corners: Believes that every child and youth at risk of suicide should have access to the mental health treatment they need. We match children and youth at risk for suicide with licensed therapists in their communities, 720-962-0706. 
  • Women’s Resource Center: Creates personal, social, and professional growth opportunities for all women in La Plata County, 970-247-1242. 


  • 24/7 Axis Crisis Line – SW Colorado: 970-247-5245 or Text 741741 
  • Colorado Crisis Line: 844-493-8255 or Text “TALK” to 38255. You’ll immediately be put in contact with a trained counselor, ready to text with you about anything. 
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Has both an online chat and a 24/7 phone line at 1-800-273-8255 if you are thinking of suicide or need help for a loved one. 
  • The Trevor Project: Which seeks to serve LGBT youth, has a 24/7 suicide prevention line at 866-488-7386. 


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