Young People With Opioid Addiction Face Barriers To Treatment

By Maggie Ethridge 02/01/19

Access to medication-assisted treatment is a major issue for young adults with opioid addiction.

a young woman with opioid addiction taking a pill

Opioid use among minors has drastically increased since the 1990s—parallel to adult use—yet young people with opioid addiction are largely without access to proper treatment.

Yale University published a study revealing that nearly 9,000 minors (20 years old and under) in the U.S. died from prescription and illicit opioid poisonings between 1999 and 2016. The related mortality rate increased almost 270% during that same time period, and were mostly unintentional overdoses of kids ages 15 to 19.

The youth in the study were addicted to and dying from the same opioids as adults, including fentanyl, the deadly drug that is often mixed in with other opioids.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes that research shows that when treating opioid addiction, medication should be the first line of treatment, in tandem with behavioral therapy or counseling. The accepted medications to treat opioid addiction are buprenorphine, naltrexone and methadone.

Lindsey Vuolo, associate director of health law and policy at the Center on Addiction, assured US News & World Report that these medications work.

“Overall, approximately 50% of patients who receive medications for opioid addiction are successfully treated, while less than 10% of patients are successfully treated without these medications,” she said. Yet many rehabs do not offer any medication-assisted treatment.

Adolescents with opioid addiction have an even more difficult road than adults in becoming aware of and accessing medication-assisted treatment.

Dr. Scott Hadland, a pediatrician, assistant professor at Boston University and researcher at Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction, spoke with US News about the results of his study on opioid treatment and youth.

Hadland and others looked at close to 5,000 Medicaid-enrolled young people between the ages of 13 and 22 with a diagnosed opioid use disorder in 2014 and 2015. The results were clear: less than a quarter received medication for their treatment within three months of being diagnosed, with most of the youths receiving only behavioral health services. A mere 5% of those under age 18 received timely treatment with medication. 

Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children's Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2016 recommendations that called for "increasing resources to improve access to medication-assisted treatment of opioid-addicted adolescents and young adults."

The recommendations urged pediatricians to consider offering medication as treatment for young patients with severe opioid use disorders. Levy says that negative perceptions about medicated-assisted recovery (that the person is replacing one addiction with another) are outdated and the benefits of the medications outweigh any associated risks.

"Policies, attitudes, and messages that serve to prevent patients from accessing a medication that can effectively treat a life-threatening condition may be harmful to adolescent health," her AAP article states.

Naltrexone is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for patients age 18 and older, and buprenorphine is approved for patients 16 and older.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.