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Teen and Young Adult Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

Teens and young adults who use drugs or alcohol may have an increased risk of addiction. This is partly because their brains aren’t fully formed yet, and drugs and alcohol can affect how the brain develops.1 If you or someone you care about are dealing with a mental health issue, substance use, or addiction, you should know that teen addiction treatment can help. Specialized substance abuse treatment can address your unique treatment needs, which are often different than the needs of adults.

Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol and marijuana are some of the most used substances in teens.2 When they reach 12th grade, around two-thirds of students have tried alcohol and 2 out of 10 report they have misused a prescription drug, while half of the students between 9th and 12th grade have tried marijuana.2

Rates of drug and alcohol abuse in teens vary by substance. For example, teen addiction statistics gathered by the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicate 712,000 teens aged 12 to 17 had an alcohol addiction, while 1.2 million  teens in the same age range had an illicit (illegal) drug use disorder, meaning addiction to marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, meth, or prescription drugs such as stimulants, tranquilizers or sedatives, and opioid pain relievers.3

Young adult and teen substance abuse is a complex issue that can happen for many different reasons. Genetics are a factor, of course, just as they are for older adults; but your genes aren’t destiny, and other factors contribute to addiction.4 The role your parents play in setting clear boundaries and making rules about substance use is also important—if your parents are more lenient about drug and alcohol use, it could be more likely that you’ll develop an addiction.4

Other social issues can affect addiction too, such as:4

  • Peer pressure.
  • Seeing parents, friends, or other family members use substances
  • The level of affection and closeness in your family
  • The relationships and feelings you have about teachers, your school, and your neighborhood.

Substance use at a young age is an important predictor of developing drug or alcohol addiction, otherwise known as having a substance use disorder (SUD).1 In fact, most people with an SUD started using substances before they were 18 and the likelihood of developing an SUD is greatest for those who begin use in their early teens.1

An adolescent’s brain is still developing, with some areas being more mature than others. Using substances too early can cause possibly permanent damage in addition to increasing your risk of addiction later in life.1 Chronic marijuana use during teenage years, for example, has been shown to lead to IQ loss that isn’t recovered even if the person quits using when they are an adult.17

Brain growth and hormonal changes can also impact substance use and addiction in young people, leading to poor impulse control and increased reward-seeking and risk-taking behaviors.5

When you use alcohol or take certain types of drugs, various brain functions may change over time. Many substances of abuse impact brain processes associated with motivation and reward, which can reinforce or make more likely the continued use of these substances.

Why Teens Often Don’t Seek Addiction Treatment

Unfortunately, many teens and young adults don’t seek treatment. For example, NSDUH reports that in 2020, 1.6 million teens aged 12 to 17 (6.3%) needed substance use treatment, but only 169,000 of them got treatment. Out of young adults aged 18 to 25, 8.2 million needed treatment, but only 445,000 received it.3

It’s not easy to admit that you have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Some teens might worry about punishment if they tell their parents or other involved adults that they have a problem. Teens might fear that people will judge them for needing help. One study points out that stigma (the view of society and those around you) and self-stigma (meaning your own feelings of shame about it) can be a large issue that prevents people of all ages from seeking treatment.7

Many also don’t seek help because they worry about privacy. The good news is that certain privacy laws prevent a doctor or treatment center from sharing everything with your parents or guardians or even law enforcement.8,9 If you want your parents or guardians to know things, your doctor or rehab might ask you to sign a release form so they can share information about your treatment.8,9

Signs of Teen Substance Use

Signs of substance use in teens and young adults often show up as behavioral changes, where you aren’t acting as you usually do. This can include:1,10

  • Changing friend groups.
  • Ignoring personal hygiene and grooming (how you keep your body clean and present your physical appearance to others).
  • Skipping class or having other troubles in school.
  • Losing interest in hobbies or other activities you previously enjoyed.
  • Eating or sleeping more or less than usual.
  • Being tired or depressed more than usual.
  • Acting aggressively.
  • Having trouble with the law.
  • Having relationship problems, such as increased fighting or distancing yourself with family or friends.
  • Hiding substance use from friends or family.

Co-Occurring Disorders in Teens

A co-occurring disorder means that a person has a mental health condition as well as an SUD. Adolescents who use alcohol or drugs often also suffer from other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct problems.1 Research suggests that co-occurring mental health disorders may be present in 11 to 48% of teens with SUDs.11

Substance use and mental health conditions can play off of each other. Having a mental health issue can make it more likely that you’ll use substances, and vice versa. Other risk factors can include:12

  • Having parents who had either a mental health condition or addiction.
  • Being a victim of abuse or maltreatment.
  • Living in a neighborhood with high levels of poverty or violence.
  • Racism.
  • Lack of economic opportunity.

Specialized Teen Addiction Treatment Programs

Teens have unique needs that should be addressed in addiction treatment. Even if a teen uses but isn’t yet addicted to a substance, they can benefit from treatment.1 Teen drug addiction treatment should take into account factors such as brain development, gender, relationships with family and peers, academic issues, the community, cultural and ethnic factors, and any unique physical or behavioral issues.1

Teen-focused rehab centers can offer different services. Rehab might start with detox, which is often the first step in the recovery process. Detox helps someone stop using drugs and alcohol through prescription medicines and other medical supervision and support. It can be followed by inpatient treatment, which means living onsite and attending school classes at the rehab, or outpatient treatment, meaning the person lives at home and attends afterschool treatment. Common features of drug rehab programs for teens can include medicines, behavioral therapies, family counseling, and other treatments to help improve functioning and prevent relapse.13

Types of Therapies in Teen Addiction Treatment

Therapies used in teen treatment programs can include but are not limited to:14

How to Find Teen Detox and Rehab Centers

You can find specialized teen drug rehab in several ways. It can be smart to talk to your parents/guardians about treatment if you feel comfortable doing so. Then, a good place to start can be your family doctor, who can assess your needs and help you choose the best type of treatment program for your needs.13,15 You (or your parents) can also use FindTreatment.gov—simply enter your zip code to find teen treatment centers in your area.

You can also use the tool below to use the detox.net directory to find your closest teen detox and rehab center.


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