Polysubstance Abuse: The Impact on Teens and Young Adults
Polysubstance abuse, which was once somewhat uncommon, is now becoming the norm rather than the exception. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), polysubstance abuse occurs in those who have abused at least 3 different substances without showing a preference for any specific one. Unlike specific substance abuse, where someone may be only addicted to heroin or methamphetamine, polysubstance abuse is different because the individual is addicted to altering their mind or mood by any means necessary. In many of these cases individuals may be abusing a multitude of various substances. Some of the most common substances in polysubstance abuse are:
- Opiates (Heroin, Painkillers)
- Bath Salts
The most important factor to keep in mind when considering polysubstance abuse is the fact that the individual is not necessarily addicted to getting the high of a specific drug, but instead addicted to the act of getting high in general. While some polysubstance abusers may take one drug more often than another, they don’t necessarily have a preference for one or the other. This outlines the fact that polysubstance abuse is typically not physical in nature, but instead is completely emotional or mental.
When someone is addicted to getting high, regardless of what they are using to get that way, they are essentially addicted to escape or relief from some sort of mental or emotional anguish or trauma. Most people in the world face some sort of mental or emotional difficulties. A person may have a bad day at work and feel stressed or a little blue afterwards, but normal people possess the healthy and natural coping mechanisms that allow them to process these emotions. Those who struggle with substance abuse however usually do not possess these healthy coping mechanisms. They also tend to be less tolerant to negative emotional feelings, wanting to escape from them immediately instead of work through them. In these cases they turn to drugs or alcohol to achieve this.
While some people may find a particular drug or drink which they feel most effectively achieves this mental and emotional relief, there are some who are so desperate to escape these feelings that they will simply take anything as long as they are able to alter their mental or emotional state. This is what polysubstance abuse is at its core, the simple desire to take any substance which will alter their mind or mood in any way.
Polysubstance abuse more prevalent among teens
Polysubstance abuse seems to be more common among younger demographics. A global research study in 2013 found that teens 16 and younger who were actively using drugs, as many as 34 percent of them qualified as polysubstance abusers. That figure is compared with 18 percent of those over the age of 18.
This may be explained by a few different factors. For one, typically teens and young adults who use drugs have not been abusing substances for as long as older individuals. In these situations, younger people may still be experimenting with multiple different types of substances and have yet to determine which one is their “go to” drug of choice. Many times, when someone continues to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, they eventually fall into a routine with one or two specific substances which they like the most. However, with teens and young adults this has not had time to occur yet, meaning that these younger people will tend to simply take anything they can get their hands on.
This brings us to the second reason that polysubstance abuse may be more prevalent among younger individuals. Younger people, who again have not been using substances for quite as long, may have a more difficult time acquiring any one specific drug. Instead of actively seeking out a specific substance, many teens and young adults with substance abuse issues are more likely to simply take whatever is most convenient. This leads to situations where a person doesn’t become dependent on any one specific thing, but they are instead simply addicted to the action and feeling of getting high no matter how it is done.
This goes to show the true nature of the disease of addiction. Those who struggle with polysubstance abuse often times are not physically dependent on any one drug. It is not the drug specifically that they are addicted to, instead they are addicted to the feelings of escape or relief that these substances provide them. Because of this, polysubstance abuse can often times require a specialized form of addiction treatment which differs somewhat from standard substance abuse treatment.
The difficulties with polysubstance abuse
Because polysubstance abuse has some characteristics which can potentially differ from substance abuse in an individual that is mostly addicted to one specific drug, there are some special considerations to take into account. First, because polysubstance abuse tends to impact younger populations, the patients at polysubstance abuse treatment facilities tend to be younger. While many aspects of treatment are the same for individuals regardless of age, there are some things which can specifically benefit younger patients. Things like life-skills, aftercare and relapse prevention are all crucial.
Also, focusing on the concept of the disease of addiction is often times crucial for younger patients as they may not have had the experience of many years of addiction to help them to comprehend the severity of the true nature of addiction. There are many licensed counselors who are very well educated and informed on how to treat younger adults with polysubstance abuse.
Another common difficulty that comes along with polysubstance abuse is the fact that it can be difficult to impossible to actually remove all substances with the potential for abuse from someone’s life after treatment. Instead of a heroin addict, who must make sure to avoid any encounters with opiates, those with polysubstance abuse must avoid a potentially massive number of things which can even include obscure substances like glue, spray paint or nitrous oxide. There is potential for abuse all around, and those with polysubstance abuse must face this reality while they are attempting to recover. The key to this successful recovery is getting to the root cause of the addiction, to figure out what it is that is going on inside of someone which is making them feel compelled to escape their current reality or emotional state.
One final difficulty when it comes to treating polysubstance abuse is the sheer number of different, sometimes unknown, substances that a person may be abusing. This issue is particularly common today with the explosion of new forms of synthetic drugs which are now available. Many of these synthetic drugs, which are again most commonly abused by teens and young adults, have symptoms and side effects which are often times completely unknown to medical and substance abuse professionals. Drugs like spice and bath salts are actually umbrella names for a group of drugs which number in the hundreds or even thousands. Each of these different variations may only be slightly chemically different, but their impact on a user may be markedly different. This places them in a difficult situation when it comes to treating individuals who take these synthetic drugs.
Treating polysubstance abuse
While treating polysubstance abuse can be difficult, it is certainly not impossible. There are many great substance abuse treatment programs which specialize in treating polysubstance abuse. These programs are able to recognize the specific and unique qualities and challenges that are associated with this form of addiction and cater their treatment programs around it.
One of the most common aspects of treating someone who is struggling with polysubstance abuse is providing them with dual-diagnosis care. Dual-diagnosis denotes that an individual is struggling with at least one of a number of different mental, emotional or behavioral issues in addition to substance abuse. Some of these other dual-diagnosis disorders include:
- Bi-polar disorder
- Borderline personality
These dual-diagnosis disorders seem to be more prevalent in those with polysubstance abuse, which highlights the importance of its incorporation into any treatment program. Along with dual diagnosis treatment, another extremely crucial aspect to treatment is a strong aftercare plan. Because of these common co-occurring disorders, polysubstance abusers have a potentially higher risk for relapse immediately after completing an inpatient treatment program. The point of an aftercare program is to allow a person to slowly go back to their normal life, while still experiencing the support and accountability that licensed therapists and other substance abuse staff can provide.
Patients who attend full aftercare programs have a significantly higher chance of long-term sobriety. While everyone’s situation is different, the typical suggestion is at least 8 weeks of an intensive outpatient program that meets 3 times a week. Along with this, other things like a sober living environment or an individual therapist are also helpful to make sure that the individual is receiving as much support as possible during the first few months after leaving treatment, which is usually the most common time that someone would relapse.
Finding a treatment center
Because polysubstance abuse has its specific difficulties when it comes to proper treatment, if you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to a multitude of substances it is important to make sure that the treatment center you choose is capable of offering the best treatment available. Depending on the various substances which are being abused, it may be advisable that a medical detox program be the first step in the treatment program. While some treatment facilities have their own medical detox programs that specialize in treating those with polysubstance abuse, other programs contract with medical detox facilities that make sure you or your loved one are receiving the best medical care available.
After medical detox, it is typically advised that a long-term residential program is chosen. While shorter stays, like 30 days, may be adequate for other situations, when it comes to polysubstance abuse at least 90 days is recommended. This allows the patient to address their issues with all of the substances that they abuse, along with any other underlying issues which were leading to the substance abuse in the first place. Because of the specialized care required in these cases, finding a program which has licensed therapists who have extensive training and experience treating polysubstance abuse is ideal.
Another important aspect to consider when finding a treatment center for polysubstance abuse is to make sure that they offer a strong and extensive aftercare program. While important for those who abuse one specific drug, aftercare for those who struggle with polysubstance abuse is even more critical as they are triggered by not just one thing, but anything. Many programs have their own in-house aftercare which they offer to their patients to help them transition into the world and continue to remain sober and successful.