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Juvenile Delinquents With PTSD More Likely to Abuse Drugs, Alcohol

Juvenile Delinquents With PTSD More Likely to Abuse Drugs, Alcohol

Juvenile offenders who have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at a 67 percent greater risk of entering substance abuse treatment within seven years, according to a new study.

“It’s quite shocking, honestly, and really speaks to the lasting impact of early childhood trauma,” said lead author Jordan Davis, a doctoral student in social work at the University of Illinois.

Previous studies have found that at least 30 percent of people in the criminal justice system have PTSD symptoms.

The high number of juvenile offenders with PTSD and drug and alcohol problems “demands a rethinking of current approaches to substance use treatment,” according to Davis.

He noted that juvenile offenders may require ongoing care that includes trauma and family therapy, as well as community-based services.

For the study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Davis and his colleagues followed 1,350 delinquent youths between the ages of 14 and 18 at the beginning of the project for seven years.

The researchers examined the social-ecological determinants of the young people’s entry into drug treatment, focusing on four factors:

  1. The teens’ behavior and traits;
  2. Parental dynamics;
  3. Peer influences; and,
  4. Neighborhood characteristics.

“When you look at these factors separately, you will find what you want to find,” Davis said. “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.”

According to the study’s findings, 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, neuroscientists have found.

“PTSD has a dramatic and lasting impact on individuals’ stress-response system, triggering their brains to secrete excess cortisol whenever they encounter stressors,” Davis 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,” said co-author Joey Merrin, a doctoral student in child development at Illinois.

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 discovered.

“Among our sample of high-risk juvenile offenders, it seems that those teens who were most impulsive and emotionally labile were most likely to end up in treatment for substance use problems,” said co-author Eric F. Wagner, a professor of social work at Florida International University.

Associating with greater numbers of deviant peers increased youths’ risk of entering drug or alcohol treatment by 43 percent, the researchers found.

“Peers are especially salient in the development of substance use problems,” said co-author Tara Dumas, a psychology professor at Huron College. “It is vitally important to consider youths’ peers when developing prevention programming.”

Interventions that focus only on drug use or criminal behavior may not be enough to help youths stay sober and out of trouble with the law, especially when they have co-occurring diagnoses or strong ties to risky peers or living environments, Merrin and his co-authors suggested in another study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Our research suggests that social and environmental risk factors play a central role in the development and maintenance of substance use and criminal behavior during emerging adulthood,” he said. “Providing personalized resources after treatment ends is an important step in sustaining reductions in drug use and criminal behavior.”

Tailored after-care or “booster sessions” — consultations in person, by computer or text — have been shown to decrease the amount of time that youths spend with deviant peers and hold promise for reducing criminal behavior and drug use, according to the researchers.

“Traditionally, once we get people into treatment, we put them through the program, then wish them good luck and send them out on their own,” Davis said. “However, someone with chronic trauma and substance use problems is probably going to need ongoing care that re-evaluates their treatment plan at regular intervals and addresses issues such as mental health problems or housing and connects them with resources.”

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Photo: Juvenile offenders with post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses and substance use problems may require tailored treatments to stay sober and out of trouble with the law, suggest two new studies co-authored by, from left, Jordan Davis, a doctoral student in social work, and Joey Merrin, a doctoral student in child development, both at the University of Illinois. Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

Juvenile Delinquents With PTSD More Likely to Abuse Drugs, Alcohol

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Juvenile Delinquents With PTSD More Likely to Abuse Drugs, Alcohol. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.