We all wish that there wasn’t a need for teen drug treatment, but unfortunately young people are no strangers to drug addiction. The teenage years have long been a time of experimentation, and many teens find illegal drug and alcohol use to be an attractive way to show a rebellious spirit.
According to the Monitoring the Future survey, which has measured drug and alcohol use and attitudes among United States adolescents for the past 35 years, a large number of today’s teens admit to experimenting with illicit drugs and underage drinking. Luckily, the news is not all bad: in 2009, fewer U.S. teens reported use of cigarettes, methamphetamine, cocaine and binge drinking. High school seniors in 2009 were also more likely to perceive LSD, amphetamines, sedatives, heroin and cocaine as harmful.
Of course, the news is not all good, either. In 2009’s survey, more than 46 percent of high school seniors admitted to illicit drug use in their lifetime and more than 72 percent admitted to alcohol use. Nearly 10 percent reported abuse of Vicodin and 5 percent reported abuse of OxyContin; more than half said they obtained the prescription narcotics from a friend or relative, and 30 percent reported getting their own prescription.
With statistics like these, it’s not surprising that the 2001 National Household Survey of Drug Abuse found that more than one million adolescents aged 12-17 were in need of treatment for an illicit drug problem. With so many young people in need of help, it’s discouraging to discover that teen drug treatment programs are few and far between. About only one in 10 teens receive treatment for drug addiction – compared to one in five adults – and many of the 10 percent of teens who do get help for a drug problem participate in programs that were designed for adults instead of specifically for adolescents. This lack of teen drug treatment programs is unfortunate, because teens face unique obstacles and respond to different treatment methods than adults.
The Adolescent Brain
Teenagers aren’t simply smaller adults – they also have less obvious physical differences that teen drug treatment is designed to address. Teenagers’ brains, as well as their bodies, are still developing, and this makes them more vulnerable to addiction than adults. Addiction can develop much more quickly in adolescents than in their adult counterparts, meaning they can become addicted to substances within a shorter period of time. Teens are also more likely to abuse multiple substances, which may require more complex treatment.
In addition to addiction, teen drug treatment programs must also take other psychological problems into consideration. Adult drug addicts often suffer from psychological distress, but teens are even more likely to have problems that need to be addressed. For example, suicide attempts are more likely in teen addicts, and they often have a number of family issues because they usually still live with their parents and siblings.
One of the biggest roadblocks to teen drug treatment is that teenagers tend to be very resistant to admitting they have a drug problem. Denial is common in drug addicts of all ages, but teenagers seem to have a special talent for refusing to acknowledge an addiction. While this may be part of the normal teenage personality, it’s also likely due to the fact that teenagers often don’t see the extreme consequences of drug use that tend to force adults to admit they have a problem. Teens usually have a shorter history of drug use, and their use hasn’t yet destroyed their career, marriage or health.
Perhaps because they nurture a deep denial of a problem with drugs or alcohol, teens tend to enter treatment involuntarily. In some cases they are pressured into treatment by their parents or school, or required to undergo treatment after running afoul of the judicial system. When asked why they’re in treatment, teens will often say they don’t know or claim it was an overreaction on the part of whomever insisted they come. Many think they have been behaving like an average teenager, not a drug addict. Teen drug treatment programs are prepared to deal with these potentially uncooperative clients.
Teen drug treatment requires different approaches than adult programs. For example, teens are drawn to different treatment methods than adults are. While many adult addicts find individual therapy beneficial, teens are more interested in participating in group therapy and other engaging approaches.
Family therapy should also be a core component of teen drug treatment. Teen addicts usually return to their family after receiving treatment, and if the family dynamic has not changed, it will be extremely difficult for the teen to sustain abstinence from drugs or alcohol. Unlike adults, teenagers have fewer options when it comes to changing their environment, and teen drug treatment programs are designed to take this into account.
Another unique aspect of teen drug treatment is the inclusion of an education component. Teens who are participating in a drug treatment program often must miss school, and others may have dropped out. Providing schooling allows teens to get the help they need for their substance use problem while keeping them on track to graduate from high school or receive their GED.
Reasons for Substance Abuse
Teenagers lead very different lives from adults, and their reasons for using alcohol and other drugs also tend to be different. For example, teens may be more easily influenced by the actions of other people and more likely to assume that what they see is what is normal. If their peers and the adults around them use alcohol or drugs, teens may consider it a typical or even expected behavior. In addition, popular media surrounds children and teenagers with movies, television shows and music lyrics that make drugs and alcohol seem like an OK thing to try. One study found that watching at least three R-rated movies a month was associated with a six-fold increase in marijuana usage and a five-fold increase in alcohol consumption among adolescents aged 12-17.
Effective teen drug treatment takes all these issues into consideration in order to design a treatment program that meets the unique needs of teenage drug addicts.