Drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive, or uncontrollable, drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences and changes in the brain, which can be long lasting. These changes in the brain can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who use drugs. Drug addiction is also a relapsing disease. Relapse is the return to drug use after an attempt to stop.
The underlying causes of drug addiction involve biological, psychosocial, and social/environmental factors. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease—people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug.
Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” causing euphoria, as well as flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. A properly functioning reward system motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. Surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behavior again and again.
As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the “high”’ that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug—an effect known as tolerance. They might take more of the drug to try and achieve the same high. These brain adaptations often lead to the person becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed.
Long-term substance abuse also causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well, affecting functions that include: learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory, and behavior. Despite being aware of these harmful outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of drug addiction.
The teenage years are challenging, developmentally, socially, physically, and emotionally. There is no one reason behind why teenagers use drugs or drink alcohol. Research does offer insight on a few trends:
Issues with School – Struggles at school can have a huge impact on a child. If under academic pressure, a teen may feel there is no choice but to abuse drugs to either enhance their academic performance, like Adderall, or use drugs to help cope with stressors.
Peer Pressure – Teens are vulnerable to modeling the behaviors of those around them to feel accepted. If drug use is viewed as not just acceptable, but “cool,” there can be pressure to participate in the drug use.
Parental Behavior – If mom or dad, or another adult in the home abuses drugs or alcohol, then a child may receive the message that this behavior is acceptable.
Boredom – If a teenager is disengaged in life, excitement may be sought through a new experience such as drug use. Simple as it may sound, substance abuse offers an activity to pass the time.
Co-Occurring Disorders – Teen mental health is another critical factor. A teen dealing with depression or anxiety will often turn to substance abuse as a way to cope.
Life Transitions – Risk of teen drug abuse also increases greatly during times of transitional life events, including moving or changing residence, family divorce, or changing schools.
Teen Brain Development – A certain amount of risk-taking – the desire to try new things and become more independent – is a normal, healthy part of adolescent development, but it may intensify the inclination to experiment with drugs. Parts of the brain that control judgment and decision-making do not fully develop until reaching maturity at ages from the early to mid-20s. Because teen brain development is ongoing through that time, ability to fully assess the risk of drug abuse is limited, and using drugs has even more potential to disrupt brain function in areas critical to motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and behavior control.
Drugs are widely available, and it has become increasingly easy for teens to access drugs. They can be in synthetic or natural forms, and new forms of drugs seem to emerge as popular among teens. Treatment centers like Outreach come across teenage clients struggling with all kinds of drugs, from the common ones you hear about your whole life, to lesser known substances that can be just as, if not more, addictive and dangerous. As a parent, it’s important to stay informed of drug facts and the drug landscape. Stay aware of what’s out there and how it might affect teens if they experiment with it.
The most commonly abused illicit drugs among teens include: marijuana, synthetic marijuana, cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy (also known as Molly), inhalants, LSD (also known as acid), and mushrooms. Teen drug abuse also commonly includes prescription medications, which if not being taken from the family medicine cabinet, can be purchased from drug dealers in the same way illicit drugs are, or can be stolen from friends or family members. Often, teen substance abuse develops after being legitimately prescribed the medication by a treating physician. Some of the most commonly abused prescription medicines include Adderall, Ritalin, Vicodin, Xanax, Oxycodone, Codeine, and Ambien.
Addiction is a treatable disorder. Research on the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of research-based methods that help people to stop using drugs and resume productive lives.Each teen who is admitted to a substance abuse treatment program undergoes a proper diagnosis, and a treatment plan is custom built for their addiction. Dependent upon need, teen substance abuse and alcohol treatment programs generally fall into one of two categories – inpatient/residential or outpatient rehab. While equally focused on rehabilitation, each type has unique attributes and benefits to offer. Whether a teen would benefit from an outpatient or residential setting depends on the severity and frequency of drug use, and supports available to allow for treatment participation. Outreach offers both residential and outpatient treatment.
Residential Teen Substance Abuse Treatment
In residential substance abuse programs, teens participate in a controlled environment to overcome their addictions, staying at a facility with 24-hour support. Residential treatment programs for young people offer a range of services, including drug and alcohol treatment, confidence building, structured responsibilities, and counseling for a variety of addiction, behavioral, and emotional problems. At Outreach, using a modified therapeutic community model, residential rehabilitation programs for teen substance abuse integrate positive peer interactions and an organized work structure, with vocational/life skills preparation and reflective introspection, helping prepare young clients for a life of recovery.
Outpatient Teen Substance Abuse Treatment
Treatment in an outpatient setting can offer support without the commitment of residential treatment. Outpatient substance abuse treatment is less restrictive than residential programs, usually requiring 10 to 12 hours a week at the treatment center, in sessions that focus on drug facts and drug abuse education, individual, group and family counseling, and teaching people life skills to cope without using drugs. Outpatient drug rehab can be a good standalone option for someone with a mild addiction, or it can be part of a long-term treatment program. Outreach’s outpatient treatment programs for teen drug abuse offer comprehensive services, such as individual and group therapy, family counseling and family therapy, and more.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research evidence supports the effectiveness of various substance abuse treatment approaches for adolescents and teens. Examples of specific evidence-based approaches include behavioral and family-based interventions, as well as medications. Each approach is designed to address specific aspects of teen drug abuse and its consequences for the individual, family, and society. At Outreach, the program will likely include some variation of these substance abuse treatment modalities:
Often at the time a teen arrives for treatment, the offending substance (or substances) may still be ‘in their system.’ Detoxification, or detox, generally refers to the process of removing toxins from the body. In the case of substance use, detox specifically refers to the period of time that it takes for the body to process or metabolize any drugs and alcohol in the system and, in doing so, clears their toxic influence so that real healing can begin. The human body will do this naturally, and it can take a couple days or weeks, depending on the individual, type of substance, and severity. Detoxing under the care of professionals, with medical supervision, ensures that it’s done safely, out of reach from harmful substances, and minimizing the potential of withdrawal symptoms. This is sometimes accomplished with the help of medication-assists.
Medications for Treatment
Prescribing medications during substance abuse treatment may help a teen reduce cravings, restore normal health, or address any underlying mental health disorders or issues. Pharmacotherapy, or medication-assisted treatment, is more common in adult treatment patients, but may be implemented in a teen’s treatment plan, if a physician and medical staff, in consultation with parents, determine that medication would be beneficial. Some medications that have been found effective in the treatment of teen drug abuse include: certain benzodiazepines and antidepressants that assist in suppressing or reducing withdrawal symptoms; naltrexone to block opioid receptors that are involved in the rewarding effects of drinking and in the craving for alcohol; and buprenorphine for opioid addiction, which, acting on the same targets in the brain as heroin and other opioid drugs, suppresses withdrawal symptoms, relieves cravings, and blocks the effects of opioids at their receptor sites.
Though no single treatment is right for everyone, treating teen substance abuse and teen mental health focuses primarily around counseling and therapy utilizing evidence-based practices. Substance-using and high-risk adolescents and teens have unique developmental needs. Outreach’s services engage young clients through three fundamental counseling approaches: individual, group therapy, and family counseling. Sessions address teen drug use, co-occurring problems, and life skills deficits. Social support services such as vocational counseling, sober social field trips, and more, further enhance the program’s impact.
Outreach is committed to the use of evidence-based models and practices (EBPs) to inform the delivery of clinical care to clients. Each Outreach site utilizes select EBPs and best practice approaches that are individualized to client needs. For treating teen substance abuse, Outreach uses: The Seven Challenges®, Motivational Interviewing (MI), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Seeking Safety, trauma-informed care, and in the residential setting, the modified therapeutic community model. Client satisfaction is gauged using Perception of Care Surveys – a set of survey tools to measure and manage clients’ perception of treatment for quality improvement, developed by the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), and SAMHSA-recognized.
Substance use disorders are a complex mental health problem, and each of the 1.5 million young people who suffer from one in the US requires special attention. Treatment for teen drug abuse varies in length based on each individual’s needs. The teen’s substance abuse treatment plan may be mapped out for anywhere from 90 days to 9 months, depending on need and progress in achieving treatment goals. Research shows that the best outcomes occur with longer treatment stays, regardless of whether it is in a residential or outpatient setting. Lengthier programs may seem intimidating at first, but have been found to produce best results. When choosing a program for teen substance abuse, focus should be on what will bring the highest chance of long-term success. Most addicted individuals need at least three months in treatment to get sober and initiate a plan for continued recovery. The most severe cases may take months of treatment — and for many of these teens, the path to recovery extends far past the treatment phase.
Like other chronic diseases such as heart disease or asthma, treatment for drug addiction usually does not produce a “cure.” But addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract the disruptive effects on their brain and behavior and regain control of their lives. Treatment for teenagers with substance problems can be highly effective, and in some cases, is a major turning point in life. Although full recovery is never completely guaranteed, successful cases are plentiful, particularly when clinically effective treatment approaches are utilized, and there are parental and family supports. Substance abuse treatment saves lives, plain and simple. And although a “cure” is not apparent, time spent in treatment is usually a wake-up call to countless young people who do not realize the dangers of their substance abuse, as well as the impact it’s already had. Additionally, the environment of most treatment settings, and particularly that at Outreach, allows that if a teen relapses following a treatment episode which they have left in good standing, readmission is encouraged, potentially with adjustments in the treatment plan. Abuse of drugs or alcohol can do serious damage to the teenage brain. Treatment for teen drug abuse not only keeps them off the streets and away from temptation, but is scientifically-proven to help get an addict’s brain back in shape — even if trial and error is involved.