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Parents play crucial role in youth substance use disorder treatment. How to support adolescents

Addiction resources for youth substance use disorders are available across the state and nation. Here’s what parents need to know to offer support

SHARE Parents play crucial role in youth substance use disorder treatment. How to support adolescents
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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Substance use disorders are some of the most common psychiatric disorders in the United States — a kind all-too-familiar to many Americans. Pew Research Center reported that 46% of Americans have a loved one who is addicted to drugs, and 7.74% of adults in America — roughly 1 in 13 —  reported having a substance use disorder in the past year, according to Mental Health America.

That number does not accurately represent addiction in the states’ more vulnerable population: adolescents. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 2.55 million students (9.3%) reported using a tobacco product in 2021, and alcohol remains the No. 1 substance used by people younger than 21.

The Monitoring the Future survey said that in 2021, 32% of 12th graders, 19% of 10th graders and 10% of 8th graders said they’d used illicit drugs within the past year, including marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine, heroin or narcotics, amphetamines, sedatives or tranquilizers not prescribed by a physician for them, as WFYI explained.

In America, early prevention and education programs are the main way of communicating with adolescents about addiction. There are plenty of resources for children and parents, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse alone recommends nearly 20 different research-based programs on its website.

Ben Horsley, Utah’s Granite School District chief of staff, said that by educating students on healthy coping and life skills, they can be better equipped to reject potentially harmful substances. Botvin LifeSkills, a research-based education and prevention program, is just one example of the school district’s efforts to protect children early on.

“(Our) responsibility is geared more towards education and prevention,” Horsley said. “We have a variety of prevention components in many other portions of our curriculum.”

While prevention and education programs are an effective way of protecting adolescents against addiction, many adolescents still develop substance use disorders they need support to overcome. Horsley said schools are able to help families find behavioral health, youth and county services that can help them recover from addiction.

Treatment and recovery

Christina Zidow is the chief operating officer at Odyssey House, a Utah nonprofit recovery center. She told Deseret News that it’s vital to support adolescents while they go through treatment for substance use disorder.

“When youth are just beginning the recovery process, they’re pretty hesitant to come into a residential level of care. A lot of times you see kids coming in with support of the family, the courts, or school systems,” Zidow said. “It’s absolutely critical (for them) to be involved because the recovery process is one that requires the entire family system.”

Studies show that having support throughout the recovery process greatly affects the success of treatment. A lack of support from loved ones is one of many reasons why 85% of those seeking treatment will relapse in the first year of recovery, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports. Zidow said many adolescents get off to a slow start in the recovery process, which creates setbacks in the early stages.

“The shift that we see typically is within several weeks to a month or so, once they’re through the initial withdrawal process, settled in and feeling less homesick. Most kids are able to start engaging therapeutically at that point … and are able to start unpacking their traumas,” Zidow said.

Understanding why adolescents turn to substance use is critical in the recovery process, and often obstacles to achieving that recovery may not be as simple as peer pressure, Zidow said.

Here, too, family matters. Intergenerational substance use was also cited as a potential obstacle for those recovering.

“A lot of times, there are challenges within the family dynamic that we need to work through clinically. … It’s really difficult to see long-lasting recovery, especially for an adolescent, when their family members aren’t engaged or committed to (the recovery process),” Zidow said.

Through a social-learning process, adolescents learn to cope with their feelings, hardships and traumas by suppressing their pain with potentially harmful substances, Zidow said. When you add biological factors to the mix, that can create barriers that neither adolescents nor adults overcome easily. A study from Ghent University found that both a parent’s approach to raising their child and their own substance abuse had a large influence on whether the child would develop a substance use disorder later in life.

Zidow also called poor mental health a significant factor in youth substance use, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. Adolescents turn to substances in an effort to self-medicate, and unintentionally make themselves more susceptible to more harmful addictions later in life.

“Most of these kids end up attempting to medicate their own mental health condition with substances,” Zidow said. Adolescents may use substances to manage their anxiety, to help them feel better when they’re depressed, to cope with the trauma of the pandemic. Those factors and social media’s prevalence are all “significant stressors for adolescents,” she added.

“The majority of adults who require formalized substance abuse treatment began using between the ages of 12 to 15,” Zidow said. “If we focus our efforts — both treatment and prevention — toward children and adolescents, we have a much better chance to prevent adult substance abuse, overdose, addiction and all of the costs that those issues create for our community.”

Support and resources

For those feeling confused about how to support adolescents pre- and post-addiction, there are many steps to take at different stages of the recovery process. Shanin Rapp, from Utah’s Office of Substance Use and Mental Health, advocates for those in and out of recovery for substance use. She said one of the first steps that concerned family and friends can take is to understand the obstacles adolescents may face.

Rapp cited poor mental health, an unsafe environment and a lack of social connection as factors that may indicate a child is at risk.

“Risk factors that a guardian, parent or school teacher could look for are someone who isolates, anxiety or stress, ADHD issues, trauma and loneliness,” Rapp said. “And the best thing we can do is talk about how sometimes life is distressing. Sometimes, we are depressed and anxious; we may have gone through traumatic experiences or we’re dealing with some tensions at home.”

She called substance misuse an “acting-out” behavior. “It’s a sign of distress,” Rapp said. “One of the best things we can teach kids is self-monitoring — coping skills that they can learn and use.”

She said many resources are available nationwide and in Utah, online and in-person. After-school drop-in centers, clubhouses and restorative justice programs are just a few examples she gave of resources available to those who are either in ongoing recovery or following treatment.

The Adolescent Treatment Learning Series is available for providers, adolescents and parents/guardians who have questions at any stage of the recovery process. The learning tool has information on the addiction process, mental health, harmful substances and other subjects that may be of interest to those affected by substance use.

Rapp also pointed to treatment agencies available to the public in each county’s Office of Substance Use and Mental Health. On both the office’s website and through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website, youth with substance use disorders or concerned loved ones can use the treatment locators to find local recovery centers.

And for Utahns who need assistance, the phone extension 211 is dedicated to connecting Utah residents with help. As the 211 website says: “Sometimes, Google isn’t enough. For times when you don’t know what to do, who to call or even what to ask, dial 2-1-1.”