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Health & Parenting

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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.

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