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Drug Treatment

Giving Teen Substance Abuse the Attention it Deserves

By Meghan Vivo

Decades of research have told us what kind of treatment teens who abuse drugs and alcohol need – yet new reports suggest only 10 percent of adolescents needing help for substance abuse problems actually receive treatment. Why are we failing America’s teens?

Fewer Addiction Treatment Programs for Adolescents

According to a study funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that appears in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, there are two primary reasons. First, researchers point to a lack of adolescent-only services in the nation’s treatment system.

“We have known that out of 1.4 million teens needing help for substance abuse, one-tenth of those get treatment,” author Hannah Knudsen, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Behavioral Science and a researcher in the university’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, said in a press release on the SAPRP website. “Part of this treatment gap may be driven by the limited availability of adolescent-only treatment services. Less than one-third of addiction programs in the U.S. have a specialized program for adolescents.”

The shortage of teen-only addiction treatment centers is particularly prevalent in programs that receive governmental funding and those that are hospital-based. However, Knudsen found that larger treatment organizations and programs accredited by external organizations such as the Joint Commission are likely to provide more specialized substance abuse treatment for adolescents.

“Despite the public health significance of adolescent substance abuse and the knowledge that treatment can be effective for this group, services for them are less available than for adults,” Knudsen said. “It means we lose our chance at early intervention, and that families may be unable to find services for their children in their communities.”

A Lack of Quality Care in Outpatient Settings

The second reason teens aren’t receiving adequate substance abuse treatment, researchers report, is the quality of some adolescent-only addiction treatment programs. After evaluating nine quality areas, such as family involvement and the number of comprehensive services offered, Knudsen found that only a small number of teen drug rehab programs scored high in each domain. This is partially because 70 percent of adolescent substance abuse programs only treat addicted teens on an outpatient basis, according to the study, while most substance abusing teens need more intensive residential or inpatient treatment services, which tend to rank higher in quality.

“For parents who are looking for high-quality programs that offer the most comprehensive array of services, a good proxy indicator is whether that organization has an inpatient or residential level of care,” advised Knudsen.

The Unique Needs of Teen Substance Abusers

Teenagers have special needs when it comes to addiction treatment. As such, the best substance abuse treatment program for adults will look very different from the best drug rehab for teens. The federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) recommends against treatment programs that mix teens and adults because adolescents are at a different stage of life than adults.

For instance, teenagers usually live at home with their families and thus need a treatment program that incorporates the entire family in therapy to work through family conflicts and interpersonal relationship issues. By their nature, teens don’t always enter substance abuse treatment willingly. Often, their parents, school, or the judicial system have required them to be admitted to drug rehab. Because teens may be defiant, oppositional, or resistant to treatment, the professionals working with them must specialize in dealing with these behaviors.

Teenagers are at a stage earlier in their cognitive development than adults and have shorter, but often more intense and varied, histories of substance abuse. In addition, teens suffer different consequences from drug or alcohol abuse, such as poor school performance, trouble with the law, and associating with a negative peer group, whereas adults are more likely to lose a job or spouse or suffer from health complications.

Because adolescents are still in the process of forming an identity and developing goals and plans for the future, teen substance abuse programs focus heavily on problem-solving and social skills, coping strategies, self-esteem, community service, and effective communication. Teens, who tend to be heavily influenced by the opinions and perceptions of their peers, often fare best in an environment that offers extensive group therapy as well as some individual and family therapy. In order to stay on track in other areas of their lives, school becomes an essential component of inpatient or residential treatment.

Research shows that a majority of teens requiring substance abuse treatment also need treatment for co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, or emotional or behavioral disorders. When these conditions are treated separately, the risk of relapse is high. Substance abuse treatment centers that simultaneously detect and address dual diagnosis issues have achieved vastly improved outcomes, with more patients abstaining from drug or alcohol use permanently.

At the end of formal treatment, most teens will return to their home environment, while adults may choose to uproot their lives and change jobs or geographical location. This dramatically increases the need for extensive relapse prevention planning, transition planning, and aftercare to help teens stay clean and sober despite living in an environment that may trigger drug or alcohol-related patterns.

The one aspect of treatment that holds true for both adults and teens is the need for a long-term intervention. Recent studies of individuals of varying ages show that long-term rehab is far superior to a 30-day primary care addiction treatment program. Addiction is a disease that invades every area of a person’s life, which means the addict must work through a wide range of emotional, physical, and spiritual issues in order to fully recover. Though progress can be seen as early as a few weeks into treatment, lasting change takes much longer.

Finding Effective Teen Substance Abuse Programs

Our teenagers are quite literally the future of the nation. We cannot afford to ignore the significant problem of adolescent substance abuse and the various health, financial, and social impacts that go along with it. Although finding comprehensive teen addiction treatment may be more difficult than it should be, there are high-quality programs that meet – and even exceed – the rigorous standards set by national treatment organizations and families in need of help.

For example, SunHawk Academy is a long-term residential drug rehab designed exclusively for teens ages 13-17 that has achieved impressive results. SunHawk offers a comprehensive array of services, including accredited academics, family development workshops, 12-Step programming, life skills training, and intensive therapy that includes 28 hours of group therapy each week.

SunHawk takes a holistic approach to the treatment of adolescent chemical dependency, addressing every area of a student’s life including family, school, health, responsibility, spirituality, relationships, and self-image. Under the guidance of a highly skilled clinical team, made up of master’s level therapists, a psychiatrist, and licensed substance abuse counselors, students simultaneously address their substance abuse problem and any co-occurring mental health issues, while also designing a relapse prevention plan and receiving aftercare support.

With an emphasis on community service, spiritual development, and self-discovery, teens not only learn how to live sober but also how to live well. SunHawk graduates know who they are, where they are headed, and how to find meaning and purpose in their lives. For more information about SunHawk and its approach to teen substance abuse treatment, visit or call (800) 214-3878.