Drug Treatment for Adolescents

by Mathea Falco, J.D.

Drug Treatment for Adolescents

Most American youth try drugs and alcohol when they are teenagers; some will develop serious substance use problems.

But treatment for teens is scarce and often hard to find: although more than one million teens need drug treatment, only one in ten actually receive help. Why is adolescent treatment so scarce? Lack of state and federal funding for treatment programs as well as shrinking insurance benefits for drug treatment are two major reasons. Without adequate insurance, many parents simply cannot afford to get the kind of help their children need.

When parents realize their children have drug problems and must find treatment, they frequently do not know where to turn. The family is often in a crisis situation, when decisions must be made quickly. Yet very little information is available about what parents should look for in choosing a program. Most parents are concerned about cost: do their employee benefits cover drug treatment? If so, for how long? If their coverage is limited, will they be able to pay to get the best possible treatment for their teenager? What kind of treatment will work? Should their teen be sent away to a residential program or can he or she be treated in his or her own community while still living at home? How long will treatment take - a few weeks, months or even years? Parents face bewildering questions they don't know how to answer, or even how to find answers. They may also feel frightened or ashamed that their teen has substance use problems. And they may also recognize that their own alcohol and drug use problems have contributed to the problems their child is experiencing.

In order to help parents and other concerned adults find help for their teens, Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute, developed Treating Teens: A Guide to Adolescent Drug Programs. This guide describes nine key elements that are important in successful teen drug treatment and provides reliable information on 144 adolescent drug programs. Treating Teens gives hotline telephone numbers to find treatment in each state; definitions of frequently used treatment terms, and 10 important questions parents should ask when selecting a program for their teen. Go to the Drug Strategies website at www.drugstrategies.org for more information on teen treatment.

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Adolescents have unique developmental and psychiatric issues, personal values and life circumstances, so they need specialized treatment.

Outpatient early intervention can be helpful for most adolescents, while residential treatment is typically reserved for teens with complications or challenging home lives.

An intensive, home-based model of treatment, Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST), engages the entire family of an addicted teen and looks at the full scope of his or her life.

Phoenix House, a private, nonprofit organization, runs 100 treatment programs in nine states, including the academies as well as outpatient programs. At the 11 Phoenix Academies in the United States, adolescents with drug and alcohol problems attend highly-structured residential high school programs.

Urinalysis gauges whether a person in recovery has relapsed. The urine test can help ensure a quick return to treatment.