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Youth with Mental Illness, Brain Injury More Likely to Use Inhalants

Young people who are severe polyinhalant users tend to have the highest rates of mental illness diagnoses, the highest rates of traumatic experiences and more than double the rates of head injuries compared to their peers in a new study of incarcerated youth.

Delinquent behavior was also higher in severe polyinhalant users and began younger than in other inhalant users, according to the researchers at Georgia State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Inhalants are volatile substances that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to induce a psychoactive or mind-altering effect, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Inhalant users “sniff,” “huff,” or “snort” fumes from containers, paper or plastic bags, soaked rags, or directly from aerosol cans.

Inhaling these substances can lead to extremely dangerous health problems, including brain damage, heart irregularities, optic nerve damage, hearing loss, liver damage, muscle atrophy, and death.

Polyinhalant use refers to abusing an assortment of inhalants over a period of time, either simultaneously or successively.

Inhalant use in teens disproportionately affects antisocial youth who regularly exhibit behaviors such as aggression, hostility, defiance, and destructiveness. Forty percent of antisocial youth have used inhalants compared to about nine percent of youth in the general population.

The research is the first effort to investigate patterns of polyinhalant use among incarcerated youth. Until now, it has been unclear which individual characteristics — such as demographics, personality traits, health conditions, mental health conditions, or substance use behavior — are linked to the most severe polyinhalant use.

For the study, researchers interviewed 723 incarcerated youth living in 27 different Missouri Division of Youth Services facilities. Interviewers assessed their demographic factors, medical history, psychiatric symptoms, antisocial traits, delinquency, trauma, suicidal thoughts, and substance use behaviors.

Participants were given a 45-minute screening inventory in which they were asked about their lifetime and annual use of 65 inhalants, including whether they had ever huffed inhalant through their nose or mouth in an effort to get high. The researchers completed analysis for 14 inhalants, including model glue, nail polish remover, permanent markers, and common substances.

“Our goal is to understand the simultaneous use of specific inhalants, which could lead to prevention and intervention strategies,” said Susan M. Snyder, assistant professor in the School of Social Work in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State.

“This study demonstrates the need to address the high rate of head injuries and mental health diagnoses that contribute to polyinhalant use. Based on our findings, we believe that policymakers and clinicians should target antisocial youth for prevention and treatment.”

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

Source: Georgia State University


Youth with Mental Illness, Brain Injury More Likely to Use Inhalants

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Youth with Mental Illness, Brain Injury More Likely to Use Inhalants. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 15 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.