Young Adults & Addiction
Q&A with Stephen Pannel, DO
How is Oxford Treatment Center responding to the clinical needs of young adult patients with drug and alcohol addictions?
“Through our new Young Adult Program, we are providing a treatment program that is tailored to the needs of 18- to 26-year olds and provides even more benefits for this age group than our standard treatment program does.
“This program looks very different from the old standard of structured classroom experiences and is much more geared toward experiential therapies. Working through outdoor challenges and activities with a counselor is an entirely different experience from sitting down and talking to a counselor. It provides a different energy level and allows young adults in particular to internalize what they’re learning more fully.”
What are some ways the young adult population is distinct among those in substance abuse treatment?
“Young people have a different level of acceptance of drug and alcohol usage, and they are much less likely to think of their drinking and drug use as a problem. When they come to treatment, their level of motivation and understanding is often very different than that of older patients.
“Young people don’t usually come in saying, ‘I have a drug problem, and I need to quit.’ They say: ‘I have a problem managing my drug use, and my parents don’t understand. Everybody’s doing it.’ Whereas, among older patients, they have often come to a point where they know they need to quit and know they need help.”
Are young adults’ reasons for coming to treatment, then, also very different?
“Yes. Most of our young people who come to treatment are there because of external reasons. Legal troubles, family pressures, school — there are a lot of things that drive them to treatment when they wouldn’t come on their own.
“A large number of our young adults don’t want to be in treatment when they get here. One thing I hear parents say is, ‘We can’t get our child into treatment because they don’t want to go. And if they don’t want it, it won’t work.’ But that’s simply not true.
“For the most part, once young people get into treatment, they begin to understand the scope of their problem — how it has affected those around them, and how it will destroy their lives if they continue. Their motivation can drastically change, and they can get a lot out of treatment.”
What are the benefits and drawbacks of young adults and older adults going through treatment together?
“There are definitely pros and cons. The benefit of our Young Adult Program is that it allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.
“Younger patients can learn from the experience of those who are older. One of the most powerful experiences they can have is hearing from someone who’s 35 and says, ‘I felt just like you when I was 18.’ Meanwhile, for our older adults who may have had a problem for decades, it can be useful for them to be reminded of how addiction looked when they were a different age.
“Still, the two groups are at different places in their lives. Young people have less to lose — or, at least, it seems that way to them. They don’t have their own families yet, their own jobs and homes. They haven’t really had any negative medical problems yet related to their addiction. So it’s challenging to get them to understand the disease process and the consequences they will eventually experience if they continue in their addiction.”
What benefit do you observe in young adult patients when they are taking part in experiential therapies as part of their treatment program?
“You see a huge improvement. You see them becoming more genuine, more interactive. Using more of their energy and social skills. It’s a much more effective way to build a connection and a relationship with them.
“One of the challenges in working with young adults is resistance to treatment. When you’re sitting across a desk from them, they’re resistant to the whole process, whereas when you’re working with them through activities they’re able to engage in genuinely, it doesn’t feel like treatment for them.”
What advice do you have for parents of young people in addiction?
“It’s just like any other medical concern, in which you as the parent are more worried about it than your son or daughter is. That warrants the parent being proactive in evaluation to determine what kind of treatment might be needed.
“If you were concerned your child had the flu but they didn’t want to go to the doctor, you would still take that initiative as the parent to give them the care they need. It’s the same thing with substance abuse. You don’t have to wait until there’s a known problem to take them in for a screening and have an assessment done to see if they need treatment.
“A lot of parents wait too long, because they don’t know how to talk about it or they don’t want to bring it up. But if you suspect your son or daughter has a problem, take action to address their addiction before drugs and alcohol cause more damage to their bodies and their lives.”
About Dr. Pannel
Stephen Pannel, DO, is Staff Psychiatrist and Clinical Director for Oxford Treatment Center.
A graduate of the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, he completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences followed by a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Pannel is certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He is also board certified in adult psychiatry and specializes in dual-diagnosis issues.
For current research on young people and drug use, Dr. Pannel recommends: “Monitoring the Future,” a 40-year study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).