Our youngest generations are facing unprecedented difficulties and uncertainties in their future. They have the highest stress levels of any generations in 100 years, and have been hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic, along with alcohol abuse. Rising technology use has also increased feelings of loneliness among younger generations, which has resulted in higher rates of depression and suicide. Youth brains are still developing until they are about 25 years old, which means that all the trauma from their extreme stress levels and drug dependencies are occurring at a time of greatest risk for their long-term health and brain development. As drug and alcohol rehabilitation specialists, it’s becoming more and more our responsibility to address these social concerns of our youngest members. That means using innovative, research-driven techniques to improve long-term addiction recovery outcomes.
To beat addiction long-term, it’s important to understand the way our brains develop in our first 25-years. As adults, our prefrontal cortex does the majority of our brain’s information processing. When we’re young, our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for a lot of our emotional management) handles much of the burden. This means that the way a youth views world-events, and the way they process information, is just inherently more emotion-driven than that of an adult.
As they get older, the connection between their prefrontal cortex and their amygdala strengthens, and they are able to make more rational decisions. During this phase the brain is going through a high rate of plasticity, or ability to change and mold. Stressors and trauma during this phase can develop in the form of negative coping skills, whereas strong education and support can have the most tremendous impact at this time. It’s also precisely for this reason that a lot of mental health problems might not be easily identifiable in youth and adolescence.
Some therapies, such as goat and equine therapies, have taken a lot of flak recently, being seen as frivolous and bloated additions to recovery programs. Dedicated research shows that these animal-based therapies directly lower stress levels and anxiety in recovery and have the greatest impact on at-risk youths. Reducing stress and anxiety makes people more open and dedicated to the recovery process, and lowers the intensity of withdrawal effects. The social element of bonding with animals also has a clear benefit on the moods and motivation of our youth in recovery. It can’t be underestimated how important positive, happy experiences can be during a teen’s recovery process because they are so much more emotionally-responsive at this stage. High stress levels actually reduce our ability to deal with relapse-triggers, and directly affect our bone, blood, and reproductive health.
Beyond that, the other most important aspect of recovery is developing strong social ties. Our current youth are some of the most lonely and disconnected in recent history. Alcoholics anonymous, narcotics anonymous, and other programs are extremely powerful tools for building communities of like-minded people in recovery, but they often don’t meet the expectations of a younger audience. This is why Ashley implemented Sober Saturdays and other social-based programs into our recovery plan. Sober Saturdays are days dedicated to building a sense of community, fun, and adventure among like-minded youth. Some of the events we’ve done include whitewater rafting, movies, museums, community volunteering, and gardening. All of our events revolve around reconnecting with the world around us, the community we live in, and friends who are facing our same struggles.
Because adolescence means a time of self-caring, rather than having to take care of others, it also comes with a lot of confused feelings about identity, and purpose in life. Programs like this, coupled with vocational and goal-building exercises, help youth find their identity and give them a sense of responsibility and purpose by contributing to their local communities while bettering themselves.
We consider family to be a huge part of our youth’s identities, and one of the most important programs we offer is family therapies and family bonding exercises. Many people fall victim to addiction because of a stressful home life or a disconnect between their sense of self and their family’s expectations. Many people leave recovery and are submerged directly back into the environment that encouraged the addiction in the first place. That’s why family-based therapies are so important—they mold the whole family together as one unit working towards the same goal.
Strong feelings of stress and isolation are some of the main reasons why youth opioid and alcohol usage is rising. As addiction recovery professionals, it’s our responsibility to detect and address these issues so we can give our teens and young adults the greatest chance at a successful recovery and a healthy life.