Guest Blog: Finding Treatment for a Teenager – A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Today, we are very pleased to have a guest blog from Jim Curtin, Chief Business Administrator and Government Relations Officer for Acenda Integrated Health. For many years Jim and his team did an outstanding job providing life-saving treatment for thousands of teens at Daytop New Jersey.

Guest Blog: Finding Treatment for a Teenager – A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

James Curtin, Chief Business and Government Relations Officer, Acenda Integrated Health

In a recent article published by USA Today on February 9, 2024, the grim reality of escalating teen opioid overdoses has once again brought the spotlight onto an issue that demands immediate attention. The surge in these tragic incidents not only underscores the pervasive grip of substance use on young lives but also illuminates the glaring gap in adequate treatment options, particularly in the realm of inpatient care for adolescents grappling with substance use disorders (SUDs).

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. “The ability to access timely, evidence-based treatment for addiction can be a matter of life and death, and the current system too often fails young people,” Nora Volkow, M.D”, Director of NIDA said in a news release. “We need to make access to timely, affordable, and evidence-based care the norm across treatment settings.”

The statistics presented in the article paint a stark picture: a noticeable spike in opioid-related overdoses among teenagers, accompanied by the sobering realization that the cost of treatment is often exorbitant. This confluence of factors poses a multifaceted challenge in combating the scourge of substance use among our youth.

Adolescence, as a developmental stage, is already tumultuous, marked by a whirlwind of physical, emotional, and psychological changes. When substance use enters the equation, the complexities are amplified.  Teenagers battling SUDs are often caught in a vicious cycle wherein their cognitive development is impaired, hindering their ability to make rational decisions and navigate challenges effectively. Moreover, the social stigma associated with having a substance use disorder further compounds their struggles, exacerbating feelings of isolation and shame.

One of the most glaring obstacles in the landscape of adolescent substance use disorder treatment is the scarcity of inpatient facilities tailored specifically to cater to their unique needs. Unlike adults, adolescents require specialized care that acknowledges their developmental stage, psychological vulnerabilities, and the intricate interplay of familial dynamics. Inpatient treatment offers a structured environment conducive to healing and recovery, providing round-the-clock support and supervision essential for adolescents grappling with SUDs.

However, the dearth of such facilities severely limits access to comprehensive care, leaving many teenagers stranded in a limbo where effective intervention seems like an unattainable luxury. Families are left grappling with the daunting task of piecing together fragmented treatment options, often with insufficient resources at their disposal. This fragmented approach not only undermines the efficacy of treatment but also perpetuates a cycle of relapse and despair.

Moreover, the exorbitant cost associated with inpatient treatment further exacerbates the plight of vulnerable families already reeling under the burden of having a child suffering with a substance use disorder. The financial strain imposed by expensive treatment modalities acts as a significant barrier, pushing many teenagers further into the abyss of substance use with no lifeline in sight. It's a vicious cycle where those in desperate need of help find themselves ensnared in a web of financial constraints, perpetuating a cycle of despair and hopelessness.

As I write this blog from the perspective of a treatment provider in New Jersey and as someone who has worked in the adolescent substance use disorder treatment field since 1986, I can’t help but to feel fortunate that we have not seen a spike in teenage fatal overdoses. However, I strongly believe that one death is too many!

New Jersey is well known for having one of, if not the most, advanced and progressive services for children and families. It is the envy of many leaders in this arena across the country.

And yet our families still struggle to access care for their child at a time when they need life-saving access to evidence-based substance use treatment that can provide highly effective care for teenagers with both a substance use disorder and mental health challenges. Teenagers do not enter treatment with just an SUD. They come with significant mental health issues and far too many of them have fallen behind their peers in school. The cost to staff up with the expertise necessary to serve adolescents with the capacity to provide the specialized services this population requires often keeps providers out of the marketplace. A workforce that specializes in caring for this population is a gem that is not found often enough.

There seems to be different realities between families that have private insurance and those that have Medicaid as their insurance. The USA today article focusses on families with private insurance and there are definitely challenges even if access is somewhat easier than needing to cover the cost of care with Medicaid benefits. Nonprofits typically accept Medicaid as a course of payment even though this reimbursement never covers the cost to provide the service. New Jersey can offer services to families who qualify without any out-of-pocket expense. Yet more specialty beds are needed and a workforce standing ready to meet the growing need.

Addressing the pressing issue of adolescent substance use necessitates a multifaceted approach that transcends mere rhetoric and delves deep into systemic reforms. Firstly, there is an urgent need for increased funding and resources allocated specifically towards bolstering adolescent systems of continuum of care. These facilities must be equipped not only to address the physical aspects of a teenager’s substance use disorder but also to provide comprehensive psychiatric care and therapeutic interventions tailored to the unique needs of adolescents.

Secondly, there is a critical need for greater collaboration and coordination among stakeholders, including government agencies, healthcare providers, advocacy groups, and community organizations. By forging synergistic partnerships, we can harness collective expertise and resources to develop innovative solutions that bridge the gap in adolescent treatment.

Furthermore, destigmatizing substance use disorders and fostering a culture of empathy and understanding are paramount in empowering teenagers to seek help without fear of judgment or being ostracized. Education and awareness campaigns aimed at dispelling myths surrounding addiction and fostering open dialogue can play a pivotal role in shifting societal perceptions and fostering a more supportive environment for those battling SUDs.

In conclusion, the surge in teen opioid overdoses highlighted in the USA Today article serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive intervention strategies to address adolescent substance misuse. By prioritizing the expansion of inpatient treatment facilities, in addition to other levels of care, increasing access to affordable care, and fostering a culture of support and understanding, we can pave the way towards a future where every teenager battling a substance use disorder receives the care and support they deserve. The time to act is now, for every life lost is a tragedy that could have been averted with timely intervention and compassionate care.

Notice: This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ). This information should not be construed as legal advice from the author or PDFNJ. Please consult your own attorney before making any legal decisions.

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