What special risk does drug abuse hold for teens?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains the prefrontal cortex of the brain and its connections are generally not mature until an individual has reached their mid-twenties. This makes assessing situations, sound decision-making, emotional mastery and impulse control more challenging for teens. For this reason, seeking new experiences and indulging in risky behaviors may be more prevalent.

Teen substance abuse disorders can impair social, mental and physical development. For instance, NIDA reports teenagers indulging in chronic marijuana use can experience a loss of IQ not recoverable after quitting. Michael Dennis, Ph. D., reveals on HBO: Addiction 80-90% of people with substance abuse or dependence disorders started using under the age of 18. Half of them were under the age of 15. They all use for several decades. This makes detection and treatment of teen drug abuse especially crucial.

Teen Recovery

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates only 10 percent of adolescents in need of substance abuse treatment actually receives it. Once in treatment, special care should be taken to address accompanying mental health issues often present in teen drug abusers. In a treatment setting, this is referred to as a “dual diagnosis.” Teen drug abusers have often experienced some sort of trauma or abuse. According to NIDA, less than one-third of adolescents in recovery programs have their accompanying mental health issues addressed. These mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, can function as triggers for addiction. Testing and counseling for bloodborne diseases spread through needle-sharing and risky sexual behavior is also important for whole-person treatment.

There are a wide variety of recovery options available. Below, you’ll find some general information on what you might expect in each. Confirm the program you choose is state-accredited. Health professionals running the program need to be licensed. Seek referrals and success-rate statistics from outside agencies. It is important to choose the program that is the best fit for each individual. Getting teens into treatment early can increase their chances for success. With any addiction relapses can, and often do, occur. Intervening immediately can decrease a teen’s recovery time.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a Substance Abuse Facility Locator to aid in locating a recovery center. You can also call 1-800-662-4357.

Residential/Inpatient Treatment

Teen and adult drug abusers often receive residential or inpatient treatment during recovery. Around-the-clock supervision, housing and meals are provided. Patients will likely be assigned chores during their stay. Initially, no visitors or outside contact may be permitted. Counselors want patients to be free of distraction and/or negative influences.

Patients may undergo a 24-hour, medically-supervised detoxification (detox) period. Professionals will assess individuals to create a recovery program. This assessment should involve the physical and mental needs of each client. Programs provide counseling that may be delivered in a group or individual setting. Group therapy lets addicts know they are not alone in their recovery. Individual therapy treats underlying issues triggering addiction, builds skills to resist drug use in the future and works to enhance the quality of relationships. Family therapy helps resolve issues and build a supportive home environment before the individual is released. Addiction education, 12-step programs and access to counselors can all be part of the supportive environment created in a treatment program. In rare circumstances for teens, addiction medications are prescribed. Programs with a plan for aftercare tend to be most successful.

The Federal Trade Commission provides a guide for the selection of teen residential treatment programs. NIDA also offers a booklet titled Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What to Ask.

Outpatient Treatment

Most outpatient programs are counseling-based, allowing patients to return home between sessions. For adults, it means being able to fulfill work duties or provide childcare. For teens, it means the ability to continue attending school. The frequency and intensity of these sessions is relative to each patient’s recovery needs. Individual, group and family counseling are common in these programs. Addiction education, 12-step programs and training to avoid relapse all assist in recovery. This kind of program is best for those whom have not been in the throes of addiction for an extended period of time, have less severe mental health issues and occupy a supportive home environment.

There are also medicated-assisted outpatient treatment facilities which utilize counseling in combination with methadone to treat opioid addiction. These facilities also offer physical and mental health services and life skills counseling. For more  information about opioid treatment centers, read an interview with Dr. Evan Baldwin, Medical Director for Recovery Services of New Mexico.


Addiction causes the body to adapt to substances. If you stop use, your body responds with withdrawal symptoms. The detox process medically manages this withdrawal. The intensity of the withdrawal process depends on the person, length of addiction and dosage levels of each substance ingested during addiction. Withdrawal symptoms usually peak within 24 hours of the last dose taken.

A variety of symptoms may accompany withdrawal: agitation, headaches, sleeplessness, delirium, extreme depression, tremors, nausea, seizures, sweating, extreme fatigue, cramps, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, poor appetite, runny nose, hallucinations, inability to concentrate, diarrhea, trouble breathing, stroke and/or heart attacks.

Because withdrawal symptoms can be severe or fatal, detox should take place under medical supervision. The entire process can last from 48 hours to two weeks. A physician may prescribe medications to ease withdrawal. Detox is complete when the body is clear of all substances. It is often the first step in coping with addiction. Detox should always be followed with a treatment and recovery program.

12-Step Recovery Programs

One form of group therapy is a 12-step recovery process. Many addicts take part in 12-step programs during inpatient or outpatient treatments. However, these groups can be key in managing addiction after returning home. Many have been designed especially for teens.

Attending can provide reassurance you are not alone in the recovery process. The right group will empower you to stick with your recovery efforts and make it easier to ask for help when you need it. In this safe setting, you’ll have the opportunity to review the mistakes of your past without judgment so you can make a plan to avoid the same troubles in the future. As with any treatment, find the right fit. It will increase your chances of attending regularly, working each step and avoiding relapse.

Probably the best known 12-step program is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). However, 12-step programs are available for those struggling with any kind of drug or behavioral addiction. Most 12-step groups have a spiritual focus. Attendees find comfort in the belief there is a power larger than them working on their behalf. Secular groups are available as well. Because addiction impacts the entire family, there are also support groups available for those living with addicts.