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YouthZone column: Youth substance use, mental health is a community issue

Michelle Lopez and Carmen Iacino
For YouthZone

The mental health and well-being of Colorado youth often have a direct relation to substance use education, accessibility to helpful resources, and the overall culture of substance use in our communities. Substance use — such as alcohol, marijuana and other illicit drugs — can have lifelong harmful consequences on youth.



Mental illness and substance use disorders are implacably tied, and continued substance use throughout adolescence often leads to mental health challenges throughout adulthood.

This, ultimately, has a cost on our society and communities, from employment and homelessness to economic stability and growth. But, through youth education, community support and adults leading by example, we can strengthen and empower our youth to build a healthier and happier community for future generations.



It is only natural for youth to explore and seek thrills as they are learning about life and the world around them through experience. At this stage in their brain development, they are more conditioned to make impulsive or risky choices, which can lead to substance use. In addition, the Roaring Fork Valley is a resort area, which gives our community greater access to and acceptance of substance use. One could even say that the culture is casual and accepting of it. Yet this laissez-faire attitude does not support the health and well-being of youth. The risks and consequences of substance use far exceed the momentary perceived bliss and/or cool factor.

Examining our Colorado communities deeper, we find alarming statistics. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment, through the Kids Colorado Survey, found that the mental health of middle and high school students in the Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties had an overall increase in self harm, feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts and/or attempts from 2019 to 2021. The Roaring Fork Valley has some of the highest number of student substance use and mental health issues in all of Colorado.

But this is a national issue, as well. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in the United States, 18.7% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 (or 4.5 million people) had either a mental health issue and/or substance use disorder in 2019. Those with major depressive episodes were much more likely to use illicit drugs, marijuana, opioids and binge alcohol than those without. And the percentage of young adults with any mental illness increased from 18.5% (or 6.1 million people) in 2008 to 29.4% (or 9.9 million people) in 2019. Among adolescents, heavy alcohol use increased from 2018 to 2019 and 17.2% (or 4.3 million people) used illicit drugs in 2019.

These statistics should create concern for multiple reasons. One reason being that our youth are the future leaders of our community, and they need help healing and becoming healthy functional adults in society. Additionally, youth struggling with depression, harmful behavior, and suicidal thoughts have a greater tendency to have substance use addictions and serious mental and/or physical illness in adulthood. The evidence is clear, substance using youth are far more likely to have emotional and development mental issues as adults and youth with mental health disorders are far more likely to become substance users at some point in their lives. These mental health and well-being issues negatively affect the livelihoods and harmony of individuals, families and our communities as a whole.

Together, as a community, we can change the culture around substance use and mental health. Support your local nonprofit or community center through volunteerism or finances. This support helps these organizations provide necessary educational services, teaching youth and families the risks of substance use while providing a safe space for youth to build supportive peer groups. This is where generational transformation begins. One’s ability to cope with difficult emotions and traumatic experiences is essential to curbing these statistics and saving the lives of our youth and restoring our communities. When services are accessible to families and youth, we empower youth to make positive, future-focused decisions about themselves, for themselves, which is the pathway to adulthood.

We can also make a difference in the lives of others through our daily lives when we live by example. As an adult, youth peer, family member, guardian or community member, you can promote a positive and healthy lifestyle that does not praise substance use. Instead, value healthy well-being mentally and physically by choosing activities that foster a wholesome healthy living and positive attitude.

It is crucial that we, as a community and a society, invest in mental health initiatives, such as healthy lifestyle promotion, illness prevention, early intervention aimed at children, youth and families, treatment for depression and anxiety, and K through 12 mental health programs. We can help youth today, so that they can be healthier tomorrow. Otherwise, our communities’ future adults will need far greater assistance with mental health and substance use disorders in the future. You can be the lifeline for our community!

YouthZone provides comprehensive assessment and advocacy to inspire healthy relationships between youth, families and communities from Aspen to Parachute. If you would like to learn more about YouthZone’s youth and family services, please give us a call at 970-945-9300 or visit http://www.youthzone.com.

Michelle Lopez is YouthZone’s Substance Use Prevention and Intervention Specialist. She has a bachelor’s degree in Human Behavior and is currently enrolled in a graduate program for Mental Health and Wellness with Grand Canyon University. Michelle’s background includes working in schools and substance work in the mental health field.

Carmen Iacino is a consultant working with Michelle Lopez’s program development and clinical supervision as she pursues credentialing. He is a licensed Addiction Counselor with more than 30 years of experience working with all types of addition, providing healthy effective coping mechanisms and tools for wholeness. Carmen seeks to help others appropriately express their feelings, identify and remove blocks to wellness, and create focus on the future verse fear.


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