LOWELL -- At the University of Massachusetts Lowell's "No Regrets" program, students learn how to steer clear of dangerous habits such as substance abuse.
But experts say it's becoming increasingly important to reach out to females at younger ages, and some students agree.
"In high school, they don't want you to take drugs, but they don't really talk about it. It's secretive," says Natalie Loaiza, 19, a Lawrence freshman at UMass Lowell. "Here, teachers talk about staying healthy, and you learn on an academic level, as well as personal, what it does to you."
Adrianilda Vasquez, 20, a UMass Lowell freshman also from Lawrence, says even resident assistants arrange anti-drug programs for new students.
Studies show that teen drug use has declined steadily in the past few years. But according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a new analysis of recent data collected indicates teen girls have surpassed boys in cigarette and prescription-drug use. More girls are new users of substances than boys, according to SAMHSA.
The analysis was released recently by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and Seventeen magazine. The general public shares the belief that boys are at higher risk for using illegal substances, the study says, yet girls have caught up. The study quotes research that also indicates that drug and alcohol use has a more profound impact on teen girls, both physically and psychologically.
"Girls lead complicated lives," says Nicole Champagne, assistant professor of community health education at UMass Lowell who helped write the "No Regrets" proposal. "There is a lot of pressure on them to succeed, to know what they're going to do with the rest of their lives. It puts pressure to know things that aren't always clear to them."
Education about prescription-drug use for both genders is of critical importance, Champagne maintains.
"Misuse of prescription drugs in boys is 12 percent and 14 percent in girls," she said. "It doesn't mean boys can go unaddressed."
Nor should the different needs of some cultural groups.
Linda Littlefield, social worker and licensed drug and alcohol counselor at Center for Family Development in Lowell, says drug use has been increasing among girls of culturally diverse groups.
"They often don't have the cultural mores and spirituality that's endemic in their cultures," Littlefield said. "Risk factors increase when there isn't an intact support system of family, neighbors, community and churches. What I see in Lowell, when you pull folks away from their cultural backgrounds and traditions, you are more likely to have problems with addiction. ... Girls traditionally came from more conservative backgrounds. They're catching up with boys, and that's nothing to be proud of."
The report quotes research showing that teenage girls use drugs and alcohol for different reasons than boys. Many girls experience a decline in their self-esteem and self-confidence.
Girls are also more than twice as likely as boys to report depression. Surveys show that young females tend to use alcohol or drugs to improve mood, increase confidence, reduce tension, cope with problems or lose inhibitions.
Dr. Madhavi Kamireddi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Greater Lowell Psychiatric Associates, suggests that care must be taken when associating depression and biological changes with drug use.
"Psychiatric literature on childhood depressive disorders show that it is not yet clear why the prevalence of depression increases during adolescence, particularly in girls," Kamireddi said. "It's possible that it's due to the biological, psycho-social and cognitive factors."
Meanwhile, a lot of girls seem to thrive under the pressure of being expected to have a life plan at an early age.
"A lot know what they want to be," says Alina Sorn, 15, a sophomore at Lowell High School. "You'll destroy that and your life if you do drugs."