Study Says Most Young Substance Abusers Don't Get the Help They Need
By Hugh C. McBride
Substance abuse by teens remains a pressing problem in modern American society. Compounding the damage of teen substance abuse is the fact that about 90 percent of young people who could benefit from treatment for drug or alcohol abuse never get the help they need.
This stunning statistical snapshot of the state of teen substance abuse treatment in the United States is the result of a University of Kentucky study that was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the March issue of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.
A Lost Chance for Early Intervention
“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. It means we lose our chance at early intervention, and that families may be unable to find services for their children in their communities,” UK professor Dr. Hannah Knudsen, the study’s author, said in a press release that announced the research team’s findings.
In the same release, Dr. Knudsen noted that some fault for the treatment gap may be a simple lack of services. “Less than one-third of addiction programs in the U.S. have a specialized program for adolescents,” she said.
Knudsen’s team reached their conclusions after studying 154 randomly selected treatment programs. A March 1 HealthDay News article provided the following highlights:
- The UK researchers evaluated the programs on nine areas of quality, including whether families are encouraged to be involved in a teen's treatment process and whether a program offers a range of services.
- Only a small number of the programs scored high in each area.
- Most of the programs that were studied received a medium score in overall quality.
The Repercussions of Untreated Addiction
Every young person who engages in substance abuse does not automatically progress to full-fledged addiction, but failing to provide adequate treatment to an adolescent who is abusing alcohol or another drug can create a “ripple effect” that extends far beyond the substance abuse itself.
For example, in an article on the Teen Drug Abusewebsite, University of Miami Professor Howard Liddle, Ed.D., writes that “even small degrees of substance abuse … can have negative consequences. Typically, school and relationships, notably family relationships, are among the life areas that are most influenced by drug use and abuse.”
Also, because teen substance abuse often takes place in conjunction with or as a result of problems such as depression, anxiety, or ADD, failing to provide professional intervention for the substance abuse also means that the co-occurring disorder is more likely to go untreated.
The Extent of the Problem
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual Monitoring the Future study of drug-related attitudes and behaviors among American youth, the abuse of alcohol and other substances by teens remains a significant threat. The NIDA website features the following areas of concern from the 2008 study:
- Marijuana use across the three grades has shown a consistent decline since the mid-1990s, but appears to have leveled off. Past-year use was reported by 10.9 percent of 8th graders, 23.9 percent of 10th graders, and 32.4 percent of 12th graders.
- In 2008, 15.4 percent of 12th graders reported using a prescription drug nonmedically within the past year. Vicodin continues to be abused at unacceptably high levels. Many of the drugs used by 12th graders are prescription drugs or, in the case of cough medicine, are available over the counter.
- Among 12th graders, perceived risk of harm associated with LSD continues to decrease, and perceived harmfulness and disapproval of marijuana and inhalant use softened among 8th graders this year.
The University of Kentucky release that announced the “treatment gap” findings noted that 1.4 million U.S. teens are engaging in behaviors that would qualify them for substance abuse treatment – but more than one million of these young people are not getting the help they need.
Though obvious gaps exist in the nation’s effort to provide substance abuse treatment to adolescents, a number of reputable and effective programs are available to help struggling young people and their families.
The comprehensive level of care that is provided at these types of programs can be most beneficial for struggling young people. For example, in the University of Kentucky release, Dr. Knudsen advised, “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.”
Enrolling your child in an addiction treatment program can be a difficult decision, but help is available
to ensure that you find the right program to meet your family’s needs. Educate yourself about the available options, and you will be prepared to make the best decisions for your child’s continued health and safety.