The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics
Getting Through at Last
Many kids who abuse alcohol don't get effective treatment — or any treatment
at all. Of the 3.7 million kids ages 12 to 17 who met the criteria for
alcohol-abuse disorder (and/or received some treatment for it) in 2004, only
232,000, or less than one-tenth, were treated in a specialty facility, reports
the NIAAA. And rehab programs for young people often consist of short-term
outpatient treatment, mainly because that's what health insurance companies are
most likely to pay for. But that form of treatment works better for adults than
for kids, who need more support and structure. In 2004, the Steering Committee
of the NIAAA's Initiative on Underage Drinking Research launched a long-term
research program to help professionals better understand how to prevent and
treat adolescent alcohol abuse. Treating teen and preteen drinking is a big
job, says Carol Loveland-Cherry, Ph.D., a professor at the University of
Michigan School of Nursing who has studied alcohol use among young school-age
children. "It requires work at multiple levels — with the adolescent, the
school, the family, and the community." This kind of "whole person"
approach is labor-intensive, and thus often expensive. For example, residential
programs — often the most effective treatment for teen drinkers who haven't
been helped by outpatient programs — involve a regimented daily schedule:
breakfast, school, lunch, art classes or recreational therapy, individual
therapy sessions, chores, dinner, then a 12-step meeting that can last up to
two hours. Such programs often aren't covered by insurance.
The whole-person approach is what finally worked for Mary Brennan, Brooke
B., and Chad Dignan. When Mary was 17, she again asked her father for help.
This time, he faced the fact that his daughter was an alcoholic, researched
addiction programs, and flew with her to California, where she entered Echo
Malibu, a treatment center that admits only six teens at a time. "It was,
'I'm doing this or I'm not going to survive,'" Mary says. "I was
hanging out with drug dealers, always looking over my shoulder."
In 2003, 20-year-old Brooke, emaciated at 85 pounds, called home and begged
her mother to check her into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA. Brooke
responded well, she says, to the strict structure of the treatment program. And
because she'd always been shy, she found comfort in the recovery community.
"Knowing that there are other people like me gave me strength," Brooke
says. "I learned that I'm not crazy, I'm just alcoholic." Sober since
rehab, she works at an insurance company.
After he set the fire, Chad Dignan faced a police officer in the principal's
office who gave him a choice: juvenile detention or rehab. A counselor at the
outpatient treatment center Chad attended suggested he enroll at Sobriety High
West Academy in nearby Edina, one of five Sobriety High campuses in the
Minneapolis/St. Paul area. His mother was reluctant to transfer him from an
affluent school district with lots of extracurricular programs and sports, but
Chad insisted. "He kept saying if he went back to his old school, he would
go back to using," says Reneé Dignan. She knew things were different at
Sobriety High when Chad threw a Halloween party not long after starting there.
Some of his former, drug-using friends showed up — and his new classmates
surrounded the uninvited guests and escorted them out. "Sobriety High was a
lifeline," says Reneé, who now serves on the school's board, as does Chad,
a community college student.
Mary found enough peace and individual counseling at Echo Malibu to begin
working through the rage and pain she had felt when her mother left their
family. "At Echo, I had to accept that my mom may never be the way I want
her to be," says Mary, who's now a freshman at a Christian university in
Southern California. "My dad and I started to create a great relationship.
And every day I get up and make a conscious decision not to drink."