SAMHSA Study Uncovers Increasing Substance Abuse Among Young Girls

April 1, 1998
Claire Ginther
Volume 15, Issue 4

The findings are disturbing. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in an effort to measure substance use and abuse among women, compiled data from its National Household Survey on Drug Abuse into a new report, Substance Use Among Women in the United States, which was released in September 1997. What they found is a worrisome indicator that substance use in this country is a significant problem for women, particularly among young girls ages 10 to 14.

The findings are disturbing. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in an effort to measure substance use and abuse among women, compiled data from its National Household Survey on Drug Abuse into a new report, Substance Use Among Women in the United States, which was released in September 1997. What they found is a worrisome indicator that substance use in this country is a significant problem for women, particularly among young girls ages 10 to 14.

SAMHSA undertook the new study because previous research indicated that abuse or problem use of alcohol or illicit drugs by women is a risk factor for unprotected intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. Also of concern are the consequences of infection, unintended pregnancy, poor birth outcomes, child abuse and neglect, criminal activities, mental health disorders, and other adverse health and social consequences.

Most startling of all the statistics gathered were the increasing rates of substance use among young girls, specifically in the 10- to 14-year-old age range.

According to the report, in the 1960s, 7% of all new female alcohol users were between the ages of 10 to 14. However, by the early 1990s that number had grown, with 31% of all new female alcohol users between the ages of 10 and 14.

The outcome was similar when the statistics for marijuana use were analyzed. Among girls reporting their first use of marijuana in the 1960s, only 5% were ages 10 and14, but by the early 1990s, 24% were in this age group. The study also indicated that females generally initiated alcohol and marijuana use at later ages than males, except for the period 1991 to 1995, when the gender difference in age of first use became negligible.

Similar rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug use were found among males and females between the ages of 12 and 17, although a significantly higher percentage of females than males reported the nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs (such as painkillers, tranquilizers, sedatives and stimulants) in the past year.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health

In regard to mental health and substance abuse, the statistics showed that women who were between the ages of 18 and 34, were not married, had one or more of four mental syndromes measured in the survey (major depressive episode, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia and panic attack), and had initiated substance use at an early age (15 or younger) exhibited the highest prevalence of any illicit drug use in the past year.

Women who had at least one of the four measured mental syndromes in the past year were more likely to report heavy cigarette use or heavy alcohol use within the past month or problem drug use within the past year than those who didn't. In addition, females reporting a major depressive episode in the past year were twice as likely to report heavy cigarette use and four times as likely to report problem drug use than those with no major depressive episode in the past year.

Drug Use and Crime Among Women

Not surprisingly, women who used any illicit drug in the past year were six times more likely than women who were nonusers to report having been arrested in the past year. They were also four times more likely to have engaged in criminal activity in the one-year period. However, females who were heavy alcohol or illicit drug users were less likely to have been arrested in the past year than adult male users. And female past-year users were significantly less likely to be on probation or parole.

The relationship between past-year illicit drug use and crime among the male population was similar to the women's. Male illicit drug users, though, were only three times more likely than nonusers to report having been arrested in the past year, suggesting that the association between drug use and crime is stronger for women than men.

Substance Use and Pregnancy

During one month's time, the study data showed that an estimated 62,000 pregnant women (2.3% of all pregnant women under age 44) reported using an illicit drug.

Approximately one-fifth (21.2%) of pregnant women under age 44 had used alcohol in the month's survey, with nearly one-third (30.4%) having three or more drinks on the days they drank. Additionally, approximately one-fifth (21.5%) of pregnant women under age 44 said they had smoked cigarettes in the past month. More than one-quarter (28.5%) of these reported heavy smoking in the past month.

Women who were pregnant reported a significantly lower prevalence of past-month use of alcohol, marijuana and any illicit drug than nonpregnant women with or without children. These data suggest that many women may have reduced or stopped substance use during pregnancy, but increased use after they gave birth.

Women who used problem drugs (30%) were more likely to live with children under age 18 than men who used problem drugs (18%).

Women receive less care

Women were less likely than men to have received alcohol and drug treatment in the past year (0.6% versus 1.3% for drug treatment and 0.9% versus 2.2% for alcohol treatment). In addition, a greater percentage of adolescent females (ages 12 to 17) than adolescent males had received alcohol and drug treatment in the past year (1.2% versus 0.6% reported past-year drug treatment and 1.2% versus 0.9% reported past-year alcohol treatment).

Commenting on these statistics, Nelba Chavez, Ph.D., SAMHSA administrator, said: "This landmark study tells us conclusively that substance abuse is an increasingly significant problem for women in this country, and it's a problem that is starting earlier and earlier in girls' lives. We need to be providing girls with greater support and a more empowered view of their future during their vulnerable early teen years. This is why we initiated the 'Girl Power!' campaign."

In Celebration of "Girl Power!"

The "Girl Power!" campaign was initiated in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at SAMHSA, under the direction of HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. Their goal is to empower and encourage 9- to 14-year-old girls to make the most of their lives. The ongoing public education campaign provides young women with positive messages, meaningful opportunities and accurate information about health issues.

"Too many girls are taking dangerous chances with the only lives they will ever have," Shalala said at an American Public Health Association annual meeting. "We hope to reach girls at this key transitional age when they are forming their values and attitudes. Our job as caring adults is to help girls build confidence and pursue opportunity."

The "Girl Power!" campaign is unique because it addresses issues in girls' lives today and is implemented in many phases. The objective of the first phase is to delay the onset and reduce the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs among young girls. Subsequent phases' target underage smoking, premature sexual activity, physical activity, nutrition and mental health.

A campaign goal is to enlist the efforts of parents, schools, communities, religious organizations, health providers and others to make regular, sustained efforts to give girls the support and encouragement they need.

"We are challenging caring adults to reach out to young girls in their lives," Shalala said. "Despite the aura of independence they project so well, adolescent girls look to their parents and other adults for everyday love, attention, involvement and discipline."

SAMHSA offers a "Girl Power!" packet which includes a Guide for Keeping Youth Drug-Free; a press kit with sample media pieces, fact sheets and radio and print public service announcements adaptable for local use; and a diary for girls containing writing and drawings by girls ages 9 to 14. For more information, visit the Girl Power! Web site at: http://www.health.org/gpower.