June 29, 2011— -- Matt Helmer was the teen who begged his parents to give each homeless person $20 on the street. He was the guy who worked at the bagel shop and brought the day-old breads to the local food pantry instead of throwing them out. He was the 20-something who always stopped for a broken down car on the side of the road.
But he was also the teen who began smoking marijuana at 14 before turning to oxycontin two years later. He wrecked his mother's car while driving stoned, pilfered money from his friends, dropped out of high school and spent three weeks in jail after his parents turned him in for stealing their credit cards.
"He went from experimenting to being stoned all the time," said his mother, Evelyne Morel, of Cream Ridge, N.J. "It was so painful to watch. Those last few years were intensely hellish."
But in 2008, Morel received the phone call that Matt, then 22, attempted to hang himself while high on cocaine. He was in a coma for three days before he died on Sept. 24, 2008.
Now, a new report found that most addicts are like Matt-- 90 percent of them begin in high school. It is a striking statistic to many, but Morel wasn't surprised.
"Matt knew he'd end up dead or in jail if he didn't go to rehab and get clean," said Morel. "Unless you witness it, you don't realize how addiction can spiral so out of control."
Researchers from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, found that nine out of 10 American addicts started smoking, drinking or using drugs before the age of 18 and one in four of those people become addicted to some sort of drug.
"We now have enough science to show that adolescent substance use is America's no. 1 public health problem," said Susan Foster, senior investigator of the study. "By recognizing this as a health problem and responding to it, we can actually make the difference by improving the life prospects of teens and saving costs in society."
Adolescence is a critical period of brain development and experts say the teen years put people at increased danger of addiction because their brains are more sensitive to substances and they're more likely to experiment and take risks.
"The brain is still developing up until age 25, so when you put nicotine and psychoactive substances in the body, it's actually messing with the brain as it's developing," said Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the University of California at San Francisco Center for Tobacco and Research and Education. "Nicotine tends to be the gateway drug when kids start smoking younger. They're more likely to become addicted and smoke for a longer period of time."
Glantz continued to say that smoking creates permanent changes in the brain. When a person quits, some of those changes reverse, but never completely. Researchers also know that tobacco, alcohol and other drugs act similarly in the brain, so that the use of one substance heightens the risk of dependence on others.
Addiction Costs Billions
"Addiction is the most costly health problem in America today, and it drives 70 other diseases that require hospitalization," said Foster. "It drives a host of very costly health and social problems that are largely preventable. We can do something about it."
Foster said preventing teens from substance use begins with screening young people for their mental health and family addiction history.
"We need to... ask questions and intervene and understand what circumstances exist in the family, including mental health conditions, history of addiction and eating disorders."
Society also needs to move away from a culture that glorifies and promotes substance use as a way to relax or have fun and improve accessibility of available treatment, she said.
As for Morel, who works with teens, she hopes to see better communication among parents and teens about drugs and addiction.
"This is a disease that can happen to anyone," said Morel. "In ninth grade, it was like a switch went off in Matt. It's not just poor kids or the homeless that this can happen to. They're not any more likely than any of the rest of us."