The epidemic no one is talking aboutJ. was 16 when he started abusing painkillers. A decade later, he and most of his close friends have been in and out of rehab.

J. grew up in Madison, Conn., a small coastal town that in 2013 boasted a median household income of $105,000.1 Known for its miles of beaches and quaint downtown, the place is a favorite summer getaway for the rich and occasionally famous. But underneath the charm of what Coastal Living once declared a “dream town” is a community J. describes as rife with competition.2

“I did fine in school,” J. said, explaining that he went on to graduate and enroll in college like the rest of his peers. But “fine” wasn’t enough for his mom, who “was really hard on” him, especially when it came to grades. Among other things, J. says she would compare him to other students from his classes, some of whom went on to attend Ivy League schools. When asked how his mom knew what other students were getting, he explained that it was common for parents to swap that kind of information. “Honestly, I think the competition was held more among the parents,” he said. Already suspicious of his need for parents in the way teenagers so often are, J. said the nagging pushed him “even further away.”

J. wasn’t the only one who developed a disdain for the competition that his community seemed to run on. He says the theme of parental pressure was a constant in his conversations with his five friends. Together, they made a tacit pact to shut that world out, refusing to compare grades with each other and avoiding things like sports. Aiding their efforts to escape was first alcohol, and then eventually drugs. “I think everyone was trying to fill a void,” J. said.

Underage drinking was by no means unusual at J.’s high school. He estimated that by the time his class graduated, at least half of the students were doing it. “There was a lot of drinking going on,” he said. Drugs were a bit more scarce, though he suspected as many as one in five abused them. “Pills were big,” J. said, explaining that most got them from older siblings or unwitting parents.

The first time J. tried pills he was over at a friend’s. Watching his friend get high on medication he’d swiped from his mom, J. knew he wanted in. “It just looked like so much fun.”

Up until that point, J. had turned to marijuana when he wanted to get high, and he often drank with his friends. Almost overnight, pain medication replaced alcohol and marijuana as both J. and his friends’ substance of choice. “That’s what we all like to do.” It wasn’t long before J. began going out of his way to find people from neighboring towns who would sell him drugs. But access was inconsistent, which meant that despite getting high as often as he could, he estimated it averaged out to only once a week in high school. College was a different story. “There it was pretty much every day.” J. wasn’t the only one. “Most of the people who experimented with them seemed to get hooked.”

J. is right to think he’s not so unique, and not only in his affinity for painkillers. For nearly two decades, Suniya Luthar has been excavating the relationship between growing up in an affluent society and substance abuse.

Her findings: Youth raised in wealthy communities are more likely to drink and use drugs than their middle-and even lower-class peers.

The discovery was an accidental one, the result of a study in the mid- to late-90s in which she and one other colleague sought to study substance abuse among students in an inner-city Connecticut school. By gathering data on a nearby suburban community, the researchers meant only to supply a comparison sample for the first.3

The results shocked the duo.4 From cigarettes and alcohol to illicit drugs, those from the control sample, where the median income at the time of the study was $63,368, were significantly more likely to report abuse than those from the inner-city group, where the median income was $28,704.5

Over the years, Luthar has tested the findings again and again. Each time the results are the same: Youth with rich parents face an abnormally high risk when it comes to substance abuse. This is perhaps surprising for a group known to excel in and out of the classroom, but as Luthar and her co-author wrote in 2007, while on the surface many of these teens may have it all, “there is also, clearly, the potential for some nontrivial threats to their psychological well-being.”6

Among those threats is the pressure to succeed. With so many resources available to them, teens raised in affluent societies have nothing to shield them from expectations. The result, Luthar says, is a mentality of “if you can, you must.” So dominant is this theme in her research, Luthar has coined the phrase “privileged but pressured” to describe youth like J. But just as J. was quick to find fault with his community at large, Luthar stresses the problem does not originate with parents. “There is not a single unitary factor that will explain all of this,” the researcher said. Rather, it “starts at the level of society, then it goes into the schools, [and] it goes into the universities. What is it that admissions people value in making the selections? It’s all about accomplishments and achievements.”7

There’s another part to this equation—one that again J. is all too familiar with. Luthar warns that in the flurry to do more, “suburban children’s needs for emotional closeness may often suffer” as “parents’ careers erode relaxed family time and youngsters are shuttled between various after-school activities.”8 In J.’s case, both of his parents had jobs—his mother as an accountant and his dad as a software engineer. “It seemed like he was always working,” J. said.

And then there is the matter of money. As Luthar and her co-author put it, the children of affluence in her studies made up for what they lacked in access to parents with access to money—money to foster even the most expensive addictions.9

Luthar’s message doesn’t come without hope, however. True, parents can’t alter the college admissions process, but they can stop putting unnecessary pressure on their children. Neither does the parent need to encourage or give in to a child’s demands to participate in a rotating circuit of extracurriculars. And while fostering a warm relationship with a teenager may not always be totally up to parents, they do have the power to make themselves emotionally available. In short, Luthar says parents “need to work extra hard to make sure our children do not get swept away in this feeling of ‘I must do more,’ and stay grounded more in decency, kindness and true compassion, concern for humanity.”

Sources

[1] http://www.city-data.com/city/Madison-Connecticut.html[2] http://www.coastalliving.com/travel/atlantic/madison-connecticut[3] Luthar, S.S., & D’Avanzo, K. (1999). Contextual factors in substance use: A study of suburban and inner-city adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 11(4), 845–867.[4] Rosin, H. (2015). The Silicon Valley Suicides. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/12/the-silicon-valley-suicides/413140/[5] Luthar, S.S., & D’Avanzo, K. (1999). Contextual factors in substance use.[6] Luthar, S. S., & Latendresse, S. J. (2005). Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(1), 49–53. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x[7] Speaking of Psychology. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/affluence.aspx[8] Luthar & Latendresse. Children of the Affluent.[9] Luthar, S.S., & D’Avanzo, K. (1999). Contextual factors in substance use.Written by By Tamarra Kemsley

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