Mental Health Expert Warns Substance Abuse Damages The Brain

Newtown Bee By Susan Coney

Jonathan Michaelis, PhD clinical neuropsychologist, spoke at the Newtown Parent Connection forum about how drugs alter the brain. – Bee Photo, Coney

If you think that drug abuse among teenagers is limited to illegal substances like marijuana and club drugs such as Ecstasy, think again. While marijuana is the most common drug abused by teens, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs run a close second. That was the message speaker Jonathan F. Michaelis, PhD, presented to parents who attended the Parent Connection Forum on April 13. The clinical neuropsychologist, a graduate of Columbia University, has been a frequent guest on national and local television programs as an expert commentator for mental health issues for children.

Dr Michaelis challenged the audience to stop and think about how your brain works and about the changes in brain function when a person uses drugs or alcohol. He held a frank discussion about the detrimental effects of substance abuse on the brain and encouraged the audience to ask questions.

Dr Michaelis projected computer generated graphics for the audience of how a brain functions. A normal brain appears smooth. Brain graphics depicting patients suffering from alcohol or drug abuse appear to have holes.

He stressed that every time you drink alcohol, any type of alcohol, you lose brain cells. “Kids think it isn’t a big deal. They are so young, they don’t have the sense to be scared, it feels good for the time being,” he said. As the abuse of either alcohol or drugs continues the damage to the brain accumulates. Use of any type of substance changes the way in which the brain functions.

Cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, and PCP cause the brain to become excessively agitated. Using marijuana, tranquilizers, and heroin will cause the brain to function too slowly. “The brain does not fully mature until the age of 30. There is no future time to catch up and get the brain to develop the way that it should.”

He also said that the delay in development makes the brain lag behind causing poor school performance and low self-esteem.

Drug and alcohol abuse are part of a cycle. A person may start to take drugs to relax, unwind, or feel good, then become dependent on them, having to take larger doses to produce the same “high.” They may end up addicted or with mental problems resulting from the substance abuse, according to Dr Michaelis. By the same token, he noted that a person may have mental health problems, for instance depression, and end up taking drugs to feel normal. He stressed that we are medicating our children more than ever before, and that the use of antidepressants in children has tripled. It is a continuous cycle.

As the lecture came to a close, Dr Michaelis emphasized that parents are still the strongest influence on adolescents’ big decisions, like whether to smoke, drink, or do drugs. Printed handouts distributed to the audience recommended parents be vigilant and confront their kids about behavior changes. Parents should know who their child’s friends are and set boundaries. He stressed the importance of waiting until everyone has cooled down to discuss any problems or issues. Talk with your child about what is good for everybody, universal rules, and following acceptable rules.

Most importantly Dr Michaelis urged parents to step back and take a critical look at their own lifestyle. “Parents are the role models, if you drink excessively or abuse prescription drugs you set the example. You have to be willing to take the lead and set a good example for your children,” he said.

The informative handouts were provided compliments of the Drug Center Pharmacy. For more information on addition or substance abuse, visit the Newtown Parent Connection website at

Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company




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The mission of the Newtown Parent Connection is to educate and empower the community in the prevention of substance abuse and to embrace families in crisis.

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A weekly gathering for parents and caregivers with children or loved one's affected by substance use/abuse. This group provides a confidential venue to receive information and support concerning how to handle their child's or loved one's suspected or confirmed use of substances. Facilitated by an experienced drug & alcohol counselor.

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Founder & Executive Director

Dorrie Carolan and her husband raised their four children in Newtown, CT. Starting the Parent Connection was never part of her plan.

The issue of substance abuse became personal when her eldest son, Brian, became addicted and subsequently died at age 28 of a prescription drug overdose. Through the struggles caused by Brian's addiction, Dorrie became aware that this was an issue that affected many others in the community. She founded the Parent Connection in 1993 in an attempt to network with other concerned Newtown parents. It was the impetus behind many policy changes in town and within the schools.

Our Board of Directors is a committed body of volunteers who support our mission to keep the youth of Newtown safe and substance free.

Dorrie Carolan  - Executive Director

Joseph Hemingway - President 

Gene Vetrano- Vice President

Frank Crudo- Treasurer

Kevin Carolan -Secretary

Maggie Conway

David Cooper

Anne Dalton

Kathleen Moonan

Ken Rodbell

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