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Posted 10/26/2021

Pursuing the Gap: Treating Adolescent Addiction

Addiction medicine wasn’t Dr. Trevor Anderson’s primary focus during medical school. However, it quickly became an area of interest while working as a pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I interfaced frequently with the devastation of substance use and other harmful societal issues that significantly impacted the health of my patients,” said Anderson “There was never an easy fix for many of the problems I encountered.”

It was this gap in addiction research and treatment for adolescents that compelled him to enter the field of addiction medicine for adolescents. “The targeted research concentrating on this specific age population was extremely limited and I felt I could make a significant impact and exponentially improve families and the community,” shared Anderson.

Following a fellowship in addiction medicine, Anderson now specializes in pediatric addiction medicine and cares for adolescents at the NCWR Addiction Recovery Clinic at OSU. Anderson has seen the tragedies of addiction in youth and is now in a position to help restore their mental, physical and emotional health.

“Addiction robs adolescents of their lives, independence, vitality and development,” explains Anderson. “Addiction hijacks your brain and tells it that drugs are as important as breathing or eating.”

Adolescence is a challenging period in life when individuals frequently seek independence and begin establishing a self-identity. “They are at an age where their limbic system, the emotion and thrill-seeking portion of brain, is fully developed while the prefrontal cortex, the logical part of brain that performs executive decisions, is not yet fully developed,” said Anderson. “This can extend into the middle of third decade of life.”

Addiction can get increasingly severe leading to mental and physical health issues or even death. It can disrupt typical patterns of development which can perpetuate use. “It is a great loss of human potential,” shared Anderson.

An alarming trend Anderson has observed is the popularity of e-vape devices. “There has been a trend nationally showing an increase in use of e-vape devices by adolescents which is reflected by their beliefs that the devices are safer,” explained Anderson.

Research also reveals a new concerning trend among 7th and 8th graders who report an increased use of marijuana. This increase is linked to easier accessibility due to many states' marijuana laws.

Treatment for adolescents primarily consists of behavioral modifications with optional use of medications when necessary. “Adolescent brains are wired to develop healthy and unhealthy habits very quickly. However, it also has immense potential for recovery if substance use is identified early and treated before it becomes established,” said Anderson.

Identifying substance use disorders and addiction is a crucial step to begin the process of recovery. Earlier intervention is likely to have greater success. “Recovery involves intervention and motivating the individual for intrinsic desire to change and discontinue their substance use,” said Anderson.

Recovery can take months to years and requires a lifelong commitment by the individual to guard themselves from reoccurrence. Behavioral therapies can potentially help the individual to decide to change, and medications can be a tool to help assist maintaining that change.

Key to preventing addiction in youth and young adults is to have stable relationships at home and with friends, and to have a confidant they trust. It’s also important to talk with a physician about any existing mental health concerns. This ensures conditions are treated properly rather than reverting to unhealthy substance use as a coping mechanism.

Anderson also recommends talking with children about the dangers of substance use and addiction at an early age, setting firm expectations regarding use, and providing unconditional support. “When adolescents feel comfortable seeking help when they need it without punishment, they are more likely to confide in that trusted source and avoid unhealthy behaviors,” said Anderson.

Deanne Vick | October 2021