High School Substance Abuse: A Mental Health Crisis

Kelsey Roberts

Why is teen substance abuse an important topic?

There is a nicotine and vaping epidemic rising and spreading among American high schoolers.
A study by University of Michigan in 2018 showing percentages of students that report vaping in the past year (displayed by type of vape and students’ grades)

As shown in the graph above, students advancing through high school are continuing to vape at greater rates. A shocking finding from this study is that nearly 40% of 12th graders report vaping in general. Additionally, this data was collected voluntarily meaning that there are likely even higher percentages in reality since it is a behavior that students are not likely to admit voluntarily.
A study by University of Michigan in 2018 showing percentages of students that report smoking cigarettes in their lifetime (displayed by students’ grades over time)

Shown in the graph above, the great decline in percentages of students that smoke cigarettes since the 1990s in comparison to today is evident. Confidently, I assume that this decline can be attributed to education and preventative programs that have been implemented to talk about why smoking cigarettes is bad. This strong evidence proves that advocating against substance abuse can make a huge difference in usage!

Aside from the data, I have a personal connection to this topic. I am aiming to address kids in high school about the dangers of substance abuse because a close friend of mine went through a traumatic experience during 10th grade: her dabbling with ‘Xanax’ in small doses led to more serious consequences and harder drugs. I want to inform people of the escalation that can occur and how large of a toll it can take on mental health.

Essential Questions

When I set out to make change with my catalyst conference, I wanted to investigate these major questions:

  • Why do students feel pressure to turn to substances in order to cope with problems or feel cool?

  • What evidence can convince kids to rethink their choices if they are already down that path?

Research + Warning Signs

This video explains the content and research I conducted by interviewing a local substance abuse counselor in Dallas, Amy Campi.
While this is not a complete list of all risks/warning signs of teen substance abuse, this list can help provide a broad understanding of what to look for in others. Additionally, substance abuse typically encompasses several of these risks/warning signs at once so not a single one of these is great evidence that someone is addicted to drugs.

Proposal for Change

Since I want to address high schoolers and create systemic change within my own schools and schools in general, my proposal for change will include educational programs in that setting.

Universal Programs

  • Broad, general education given to everyone
  • Example in context: Asking an organization (national or local) to have a representative come to our school to give a presentation to students about general risk factors and educating about warning signs/effects of substance abuse
For example, students would gather in a common space for a larger presentation with a more general reach to students

Selective Programs

  • More specific education catered to those at higher risk for substance abuse (certain risk factors are at play for them)
  • Example in context: Students would be asked to gather in a smaller workshop setting to help engage them with others who are similar to them, without feeling as though it is calling people out, but instead feeling support in a group
For example, a counselor would sit down with a group of students who have a particular aspect in common (risk factor for substance abuse) and educate them, but also allow for conversation to occur amongst the students

Indicated Programs

  • To intervene and assist those who have began using drugs to make steps towards sobriety and recovery
  • Example in context: The guidance counselor, a student’s “advisor” or homeroom teacher, and their parents meet with the student altogether in a private setting to address the root issues at hand and finding ways to cope other than turning to substances
For example, a friend might go to the counselor expressing concerns about this person. Thus, the counselor would request a meeting with the student, their parents, and “advisor” to talk about what is going on and taking further steps
The breakdown of these different types of programs prove to be effective because they can target people in different ways. According to national drug use surveys, “children are using drugs by age 12 or 13. Prevention is the best strategy.”

Pledge + What can you do?

By clicking on this link, you will be navigated to a pledge encouraging you to stay vigilant regarding substance abuse and staying informed. Please sign your name to become part of the change and help to introduce these different programs into your schools and communities!


NIDA. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 20 Jul. 2018, Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

Campi, Amy. Telephone interview. Feb. 2019.

Tackett, Brittany. “Teen Drug Abuse: The Warning Signs.”, Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

NIDA. “Preventing Drug Misuse and Addiction: The Best Strategy.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2018, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Emma.McGaraghan

    Hi Kelsey, you have a really strong project! I love how in depth your research is, and that you provide clear explanation for all of your evidence. I also really appreciate your inclusion of the anecdote about why you care, because it makes the project much more “real.” The only thing I might suggest would be I think it could b e really cool to provide examples of what your education programs would look like or include. For example, including sample curriculum would be effective in it could provide a starting point for schools to truly implement this education. Great job overall!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Kenna Luebbers

    Hi Kelsey! I really like this project. Vaping and substance abuse are huge problems in high schools at the moment, and you provided lots of good ways/proposals to create change. How would you suggest that schools implement these education programs? Do you think it should come via student advocacy?

  3. April 26, 2019 by Estelle

    Hi! Wow, I am really impressed that you even brought up this topic. It is something I have seen affect almost every young person in my life, including me, in one way or the other. I wonder how receptive students would be to their schools being the ones to educate them about substance abuse?

  4. April 26, 2019 by Mia.Coker

    I really loved your presentation! It is a very relevant topic to many high school students and educators, and I think your proposed educational programs could really make a difference in terms of aiding this issue. I think it would be great if you could solidify specific programs and how schools would incorporate them into their normal class scheduling. Great presentation!

  5. April 26, 2019 by Claudia.Russell

    Hi Kelsey!! I thought your project was super cool and definitely very relevant right now. I know at my school substance abuse is a huge problem and it feels like there’s little being done to counteract it. I also know a lot of this usage comes from general feelings of stress, anxiety, and being overwhelmed. I was wondering what you think the reason is for such substance abuse in high schools right now. Do you think part of it has to do with the large number of high schoolers struggling with mental and anxiety disorders? If so, what do you think schools can begin to do in order to help students with these thoughts and feelings, and how in turn that might reduce the amount of teenagers using drugs?

  6. April 26, 2019 by Manasi Garg

    Hi, I love the relevance of this topic and your will to talk about it. The amount of people who tell me it’s not a big deal and that I shouldn’t make a big deal about ti crazy. I think this is a really important issue that needs to be addressed and spoken about especially since the affects are unknown. Great job with the research!

  7. April 27, 2019 by Dr Broderick

    Congratulations Kelsey on the GOA Citation! SO relevant. I really wonder how to get kids more aware and involved in this campaign!

  8. April 28, 2019 by Madi

    Hey Kelsey! This is a great topic and so relevant. The amount of people I know who vape or use some sort of drug is way too high. I like the way you introduced ways to raise awareness and dissuade students from partaking in these activities. Another idea is having a mandatory semester class kind of like health. It could be more in depth and targeted to problems popular in school and in society. Something that I’d like to know is how much of students choosing the participate in drugs/vaping is their own interest and how much of it is peer pressure or the fact that vaping is a new trend.

  9. April 29, 2019 by Isabella.Kemp

    Hi Kelsey, this is an amazing presentation. This is something relevant to all students at the moment and it is prevalent in every school. It is a great idea to have kids partake in a mandatory health class to raise awareness about what they are doing in order to dissuade them from the idea that “everyone is doing it, so I should”.

  10. April 30, 2019 by Jeffrey.Zhu

    Hi Kelsey, I thought your project was very good! I think it highlights a very serious issue that occurs in a lot of schools. There are many students and people i know that have used or still use vape/juuls. I thought your proposal for change was very creative. I also really liked how you presented your information. Overall I thought your project was very well organized.

  11. May 03, 2019 by Mia Crum

    Hey Kelsey! I really liked your presentation, I liked how you used graphs, videos and pictures through out. I really liked your indicated programs and selective programs and feel, if integrated correctly and talked about in schools, could be really helpful. Vaping has increased at my school in the past year or two and a few students have even been expelled for vaping on campus in bathrooms. If something like what your proposing was implement at my school I think it could do a lot of good for a lot of people.

  12. May 05, 2019 by Hana

    Thank you for researching this topic. It is very important and relevant to us students. Your use of graphs really draws attention to the importance and the significance to this as well. I loved your solution as it is a straight forward approach to this issue. Also loved how you incorporated your audience in the “what you can do” portion of this page.

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