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Few Adolescents Get Treatment; Options Lacking

JoinTogether.com, August 16, 2006

A lack of tailored treatment means that less than 10 percent of adolescents who need addiction treatment get help, and continuing care is even more lacking, the Peoria Journal-Star reported Aug. 5.

Partly as a result, 80 percent of teens who do get treatment relapse within a year, researchers say.

Experts say that until recently, adolescent addiction was an overlooked problem, but that more money is now being dedicated to researching effective treatment programs for youth. Nationally, there are now more than 30 recovery-oriented high schools for youths, as well as more college programs for students in recovery.

"To think a teenager is going to go for treatment for 30 days and then come back to his old environment -- where he bought his drugs, where his peers are using and where he was seen as a drug user ... that's not realistic for the vast majority of kids," said Andrew Finch, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools. The schools have a relapse rate of between 20-30 percent.

Research also has shown that most teens with addictions have a history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. This has led to calls for routine screening for sex abuse when teens come into addiction treatment. "The issue of traumatic victimization is an unspoken elephant in the counseling rooms," said Michael L. Dennis of Bloomington, Ill., treatment and research center Chestnut Systems. "Physical, sexual and emotional abuse is the norm."

Young addicts also are likely to have a co-occurring mental-health disorder that also requires treatment.

The increased knowledge about effective treatment comes as researchers are gaining a better understanding about how alcohol and other drugs affect the adolescent brain far differently than adults.

Despite the advances, however, teens still have a hard time getting good treatment. Many private insurers don't cover treatment, and even well regarded programs often lack components that experts say are critical to success. There are no licensing standards for adolescent addiction counselors, for example, although states like California, Washington and Colorado are developing protocols.

"If I were a parent trying to navigate something for my child, even I -- knowing everything I do -- would have a very hard time trying to figure it out," said Yolanda Perez-Logan, project director of Reclaiming Futures, a 5-year, 10-city project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that aims to close the "treatment gap" for adolescent drug users who run afoul of the law.

Some experts say that adolescents need a different treatment approach than the traditional 12-step programs. "For years, the problem we've encountered is that treatment for kids is basically treatment for adults repackaged," said Scott Reiner of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. "They changed a couple words, perhaps, but never addressed the developmental needs of kids."