This is the first of a three-part series.
Q: How bad is it to let underage kids have a couple beers around the bonfire?
A: It’s actually pretty bad.
Physical and mental health risk
Brain imaging studies clearly show adolescence is a critical period during which the brain develops and matures and thus is particularly vulnerable to alcohol and drug exposure. Alcohol use during this time can affect brain structure and function, which can lead to attention, concentration, learning and memory impairments, resulting in difficulties in school and academic performance. Underage drinkers are more likely to miss classes, fall behind in their schoolwork, make more errors on assignments and exams and earn lower grades. Heavy alcohol use causes disinhibition, affects a teen’s ability to plan and organize and impairs decision-making, all of which increase the likelihood of engaging in other unsafe behaviors such as driving while intoxicated, riding as a passenger with an intoxicated driver, experimenting with other drugs and engaging in risky sexual behavior. Frequent use of alcohol also has been associated with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and increased risk of suicide. Teens who binge drink (consuming four drinks in about two hours for women or five drinks in about two hours for men) are more likely to experience these consequences and also are at high risk for alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
If your kid’s friend takes antidepressants or antianxiety mediation, their symptoms can be intensified. If you mix antidepressants and alcohol, you may feel more depressed or anxious. Drinking can counteract the benefits of your antidepressant medication, making your symptoms more difficult to treat. Alcohol may seem to improve your mood in the short term, but its overall effect increases symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Side effects of your medication may be worse. A few antidepressants cause sedation and drowsiness, and so does alcohol. When taken together, the combined effect can be intensified making you sedated or drowsy.
Your thinking and alertness may be impaired. The combination of antidepressants and alcohol will affect your judgment, coordination, motor skills and reaction time more than alcohol alone. Some combinations may make you sleepy. This can impair your ability to drive or do other tasks that require focus and attention.
Don’t stop taking an antidepressant or other medication just so you can drink. Most antidepressants require taking a consistent, daily dose to maintain a constant level in your system and work as intended. Stopping and starting your medications can make your depression worse.
While it’s generally best not to drink at all if you’re depressed, ask your doctor. If you have depression, you may be at risk of alcohol abuse. People with depression are at increased risk of substance abuse and addiction. If you have trouble controlling your alcohol use, you may need treatment for alcohol dependence before your depression improves.
You may have trouble sleeping. Some people who are depressed have trouble sleeping. Using alcohol to help you sleep may let you fall asleep quickly, but you tend to wake up more in the middle of the night.
Alcohol also can increase the nervous system side effects of antidepressant medications or other miscellaneous drugs used for anxiety. Side effects may include dizziness, drowsiness, trouble concentrating, impairment in thinking, slowed reflexes and poor judgment.
Leslie Lundahl, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine and a member of Wayne Health Department of PSychiatry and Behavioral Health.