Combating the Substance Use Epidemic Among Youth

By Molly Brassil, Director, Behavioral Health Policy
and Erynne Jones, Senior Policy Consultant

Luis plays soccer for his high school team. Following an injury on the field, he is prescribed pain medication that he continues to use recreationally after the injury is healed. He also buys pain pills from friends. Once outgoing and social, Luis becomes increasingly withdrawn over several months. After a scare in the emergency room, he discloses to his doctor that he has been using other drugs in addition to pain pills, including alcohol and marijuana. Luis is willing to participate in treatment to address his substance use. Unfortunately, the closest adolescent treatment program is in another city, and his doctor is unsure of how to make a referral.

This example is not unique. Youth and their family members who seek treatment for addiction in California must navigate a complicated public health care system where physical health, mental health, and substance use disorders (SUD) services are administered by different entities and often, in an uncoordinated fashion. And accessing treatment is not easy – navigating between multiple health care delivery systems that are not well coordinated can be especially complicated for youth and their families.

Last month, we published a paper, prepared with support from the California Health Care Foundation, entitled California’s Public Substance Use Disorder Treatment System for Youth:  An Overview, which focuses on SUDs among youth in California and provides a comprehensive look at the funding streams, prevalence and impact, and practice opportunities for improving care among this population. The paper outlines areas for consideration in moving towards solutions that increase access to timely, age-appropriate services for youth and their families. These include strategies such as:

  • Expanding access to providers trained to serve youth;
  • Closer coordination with essential social services and supports; and
  • Evidence-based practices specific to younger populations.

As noted in our previous blog on this subject, SUDs affect people from all socio-economic backgrounds, races, and education levels. Young people with SUDs are particularly vulnerable to the long-term effects of drug use – early exposure to substances increases the chance of developing an addiction and can impact brain functions such as memory, motivation, and behavior control. However, by taking steps to review the current system through a population-focused lens, policymakers and other key stakeholders can work towards creating sustainable solutions for identifying and treating youth with SUD needs.