Drug Use and Privileged Teens

Society would have us believe that money really is what makes the world go round. That’s why, upon seeing a story of celebrities or the rich ruining their lives through drug abuse, we implicitly wonder what anyone who can buy everything they want could possibly be depressed about. How could they continue being so maladjusted when they will likely never experience the “how can I pay the bills and buy food?” stresses that plague the lower classes? This quandary is cemented by the findings that privileged teens score worse on tests of substance abuse than those of low socioeconomic status and are also more likely to drink and abuse drugs: why does an affluent upbringing seem to produce teens who are more likely to struggle with addiction?

The Ends of the Socioeconomic Spectrum and Mental Health

It’s a well-known fact that lower socioeconomic status has numerous mental health consequences, including an increased likelihood of substance abuse. This is easily understandable when you consider the additional stresses of financial instability, both directly for the child and through being raised by financially insecure and often dissatisfied parents. It’s easy to see that—although it isn’t necessarily the case—there is obvious potential for negative and potentially damaging experiences, which could later translate into social, emotional or behavioral issues and addiction. At the extreme upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum (with annual parental income of over $150k), the situation starts to appear broadly the same. As well as the aforementioned issues with substance abuse, privileged teens are just about as likely as disadvantaged teens to commit crimes, the rates of depression and anxiety among them are twice the national average and they also have high rates of self-harm. The big question is: why should the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum be so strikingly similar to the lower end in terms of mental health?

Why Are Privileged Kids at Risk?

There are many potential reasons privileged teens are more likely to struggle with substance abuse and have similar issues with mental health to their more disadvantaged counterparts. The key to understanding this is in putting yourself into the shoes of a child born to high-achieving parents. It’s only natural to want your children to succeed, but it’s the parental definitions of success, absorbed by their kids and reinforced by their peer groups, which truly create the problems. In our primarily monetary definition of the social hierarchy, the parents of privileged teens are the ultimate achievers. They’ve got well-paying jobs and the wide array of opportunities that money brings with it. They want their children to do just as well—or better, ideally—than they have, and with their ample earnings, can send their children to the best school, arrange private tutors and nurture hobbies at will. The parents’ desire for happiness for their child drives them to put too much pressure on their son or daughter to succeed, and as the child grows and begins to appreciate the opportunities he or she has had (not to mention becoming accustomed to a life of plenty), the expectation for “perfection” embeds itself into his or her mind. Affluent children go to school together, and therefore their peers have the same drive to succeed. There are always relative differences in wealth between privileged children, and this can lead some to feel disadvantaged, further entrenching the perceived importance of monetary success as they become teens and are growing more and more concerned with fitting in. In the teen’s mind, the way to achieve happiness is through money, so they need a good job, they need to go to a good college, they need to do well at high school, and consequently, they feel as though they need to participate in numerous, college application-friendly extra-curricular activities and ace every single assignment they’re given. Finally, the inherent competition for limited places at prestigious colleges drives a wedge between what would otherwise be good friends. When they don’t achieve what they set out to (which is nothing short of excellence at all times), this is perceived as a “failure,” by the teen and by his or her parents, who might even chastise the “poor” performance. This leads to anxiety, low self esteem and depression. In turn, it increases the likelihood of drug abuse, as can the notion that hard work (the packed schedule of an overachieving high school student) is rewarded with “hard play” (in the form of drug use), and the cultural expectation of drinking and drug use at social events (since other privileged teens have the same issues too).

Is There a Solution?

The parents aren’t wholly responsible for this pressure on privileged teens, since peers and even sports coaches or teachers can also play a significant role, but they may be able to help the situation somewhat. It’s challenging—potentially causing conflict with inherent values—but parents need to step outside of their cultural norms and teach their children that who they are as individuals and that developing qualities like integrity, kindness and decency are as important, if not more important, than how successful they are from a monetary or career-focused standpoint. Acing every test and going to the best college are great, but they are successes children should be rewarded for achieving, not punished for failing to achieve.

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