Delinquent youngsters who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at 67% greater risk of entering substance abuse treatment within seven years, a new study has found.
Lead author of the study Jordan Davis said, “It’s quite shocking, honestly and really speaks to the lasting impact of early childhood trauma.”
The study’s purpose was to determine the factors that predicted delinquent youths’ entry into treatment and identify those who might benefit most from early interventions.
At least 30% of people in the criminal justice system have PTSD symptoms, prior studies have shown.
The high proportion of juvenile offenders with PTSD and co-occurring drug/alcohol problems demands a rethinking of current approaches to substance use treatment, Davis said.
These juvenile offenders may require ongoing care that includes trauma and family therapy as well as community-based services.
The participants in the study, who were between the ages of 14 and 18 at the beginning of the project and had been adjudicated delinquent or found guilty of a serious offence, were tracked for seven years.
Davis and his co-authors examined the social-ecological determinants of 1,350 young people’s entry into drug treatment, focusing on four factors — teens’ behaviour, parental dynamics, peer influences and neighbourhood characteristics.
“When you look at these factors separately, you will find what you want to find. But when you consider all of these factors together, things look quite different. Parental factors, oddly enough, had no influence on risk for treatment entry, while associating with deviant peers, being diagnosed with PTSD and having emotion-regulation problems increased these youths’ risk of entering treatment the most,” Davis said.
The findings also suggested that clinicians can expect the majority of young offenders who need substance abuse treatment will have experienced serious emotional or physical trauma.
Exposure to chronic stress alters brain chemistry and functioning, making children susceptible to many problems.
“PTSD has a dramatic and lasting impact on individuals’ stress-response system, triggering their brains to secrete excess cortisol whenever they encounter stressors,” he said.
Co-author Joey Merrin said, “Trauma also blunts the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with decision-making and impulse control. As a result, individuals who experience more trauma and stress may respond differently to social situations.”
Teens, who had emotion regulation problems and poor impulse control were significantly more likely to enter drug or alcohol treatment compared with peers who had stable temperaments, the researchers found.
The study was published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.
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