On Wednesday, July 27th, 2022, Manatt Health and the American Medical Association hosted a webinar to discuss the substance use disorder crisis among youth and adolescents with providers and advocates on the front lines. The expert panelists discussed trends in youth substance use and mental health, barriers to accessing care, and key strategies to address these problems.

An overview of the data revealed that the number of adolescents dying from overdose is rising rapidly—more quickly than any other age group. Although the rate of suicide by drug overdose has decreased overall, data show an increase in intentional drug overdose by young people aged 15-24 since 2018. In 2020, mental-health related ER visits by youth aged 12-17 were a third higher than in the previous year. Although they existed prior to the pandemic, these concerning trends have been exacerbated by COVID-19, the broader mental health crisis, and persistent barriers to behavioral health care.

Dr. Sharon Levy, Director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the “treatment gap” among teens with a substance use disorder is evidence that the system is failing to address the problem: only 1 in 10 teenagers with a substance use disorder receive treatment of any kind.

Dr. Deepa R. Camenga, Associate Director for Pediatric Programs at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine emphasized that reducing barriers to treatment requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses three major areas: workforce, system design, and treatment financing.

Christine Rodriguez, Senior Program Manager for Harm Reduction at AIDS United, noted that harm reduction programs can be a crucial access point for “hard-to-reach” youth that may not engage with the treatment system otherwise—especially those experiencing homelessness. She explained that expanding and decriminalizing harm reduction services like safe syringe exchanges would go a long way in decreasing preventable deaths, illness, and injury for high-risk youth.

By Alex Lord-Wilkinson, Policy Intern, Pizzigati Fellow