For Teen Addicts, Stigma and Limited Resources Get in the Way of Treatment

Aug 20, 2015

  It’s difficult to help anyone who is struggling with a drug addiction problem. But helping a teenager comes with a unique set of obstacles. 

  Miles is a seventeen year-old from Berlin. He has been struggling with an opioid addiction for over a year. “I was drunk one night," he explained, describing his first time using opioids, "one of my buddies was like, try this. So I did. It just took me from there. I just loved the high.”

But Miles is lucky. His parents, who are in recovery themselves, know firsthand what opioid addiction looks like. He says that made it impossible for him to hide it. But he says he knows plenty of teens who do. Even when a concerned friend or teacher alerts their parents, Miles says, “the parents will just be like, ‘they’re not on drugs,’ because they believe what the kids say. And they’re just not ready to get help.”

New Hampshire has among the highest rates in the country for underage drug and alcohol misuse. Jayson Pratt, Regional Director at Phoenix House New England, believe more teens may be using than we know. In a collection of old farmhouses on a quiet, green campus, Phoenix House in Dublin usually has a waitlist for adult patients. The adolescent program, where Miles is receiving his treatment, almost always has free space. Pratt says part of the reason is that parents are often reluctant to get help for their kids.

“There’s a lot of families right now," Jayson says, "that need this care that won’t pick up the phone because they’re just embarrassed. We did something wrong as parents, and now we failed, and I don’t want to send my kid away. So that’s a big social piece of this that we’re having a hard time overcoming.”

Jennifer Chisholm is a drug and alcohol counselor and social worker at New Hampshire’s Child and Family Services. She’s trying to understand why so few teens sign on for treatment. “We know that there’s a need in the state," says Chisholm, "but we weren’t getting the demand. So we’re a little confused and still trying as an agency to figure out why that is. Cause we know kids are using, and we know they’re using to the extent that they’re diagnosable with a disorder. But we’re not quite sure what the disconnect is.”

A number of factors could be at work here. Recent changes to the Child in Need of Services program means that minors can avoid court-ordered treatment. And for teens on Medicaid, treatment isn’t immediately part of their coverage.

Though people who work in schools see an uptick in drug use among adolescents, there aren’t enough teens showing up to justify some treatment programs. Child and Family Services have suspended its intensive outpatient program and residential programs remain rare.

In-school prevention efforts, meanwhile, often fall on deaf ears. Many teens just don’t think the negative repercussions of drug use will affect them.

Tabitha Pike is a seventeen year-old who just graduated from high school a year early. She’s also a graduate of the Phoenix House adolescent programming in Texas. Pike says she would listen to former users and police officers, who came to her school to explain the dangers of drugs, and think, “I’m never going to get those consequences. That’s never going to happen to me. But it can.”

Pike says she got into drugs because she felt lost in her huge high school. Individualized attention, she says only came after she was caught stealing alcohol and spent two weeks in juvenile detention. When she got out, her parents told her she couldn’t come home until she addressed her drug problem.

“They didn’t know what to do with me anymore," Pike explains, "just hearing my parents tell me that they didn’t want me in the house anymore. That right there kind of showed me, wow, I really do need help. At that point I just kind of accepted any help that was coming my way.”

But many teens don’t get caught. Or, if they do, they get punishment, not treatment. Miles, the teen at Phoenix Academy in Dublin, says he knows plenty of kids just as sick as he was who aren’t getting what they need. For them, he has some basic advice:

“Seek help. Try to get into a program. Go to meetings. Listen to people’s stories. You gotta come out and tell people. I couldn’t imagine not having all of the people I have that are helping me get through this. I need them.”

Opioids, says Miles, are too easy to come by and easy to get hooked on. The hard part, he says, is asking for help.