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Teens and Substance Use Recovery: An Interview

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

by Krupa Patel

Youth can benefit from substance use treatment. At Kenneth Young Center, we had a chance to interview our Manager of Youth and Adolescent Services, Kristen Himsel, about her work supporting youth in substance use treatment. We talked to her about youth resiliency, the impact of COVID-19, harm reduction approaches, and prescription opioid misuse.

There is a significantly high correlation with substance use and experiencing a traumatic event. Our youth have been through many difficult situations in their lives, and yet, they are still able to feel hopeful, and are just looking for support and guidance.

How has COVID-19 impacted youth, substance use, and families?

KRISTEN: During this time, I have noticed a few different trends that are surfacing for youth. There are some youth who are taking this time away from their friends to rethink their priorities and overall substance use. While they are experiencing cravings, these cravings are decreasing as time goes on with less access to substances. However, I have also seen some youth who have been using this time to sneak out and are using at even higher rates because they don’t have many activities to do and feel more isolated from others. In these situations, the youth and families have been feeling more overwhelmed and hopeless.

What is the difference between recreational drug use and an undiagnosed substance use disorder?

KRISTEN: I tell youth and families that it is all about how the substance use is impacting the youth’s life. If a client is experiencing problems at school, such as; showing up under the influence, ditching classes in order to get high, or being frequently searched for drugs by staff, this is a problem. Oftentimes, we see certain core areas that are being impacted when there is an undiagnosed substance use disorder: school, work, friends, legal, and family. If the youth is experiencing difficulties in this, then there is a high likelihood that they are struggling. Also, how does the youth get through their daily activities? Do they feel as though they need to use in order to get through their day, and if not, are they a different person? There are a variety of questions that we ask, but I think that looking at these core areas, families can better understand how substance use can impact their child. Recreational use has very minimal impact on the client’s life, and if the substance was taken out of their life, they would be able to still function.

What resources do you think youth and families need most today?

KRISTEN: In terms of substance use resources, we need more treatment centers for not only the youth, but also for the families. There is a lack of affordable and essential treatment resources for youth that include the following: harm reduction agencies, residential treatment centers that accept Medicaid, family groups, and medication assisted treatment.

What are some of the strengths of the youth you serve?

KRISTEN: The youth that we serve are incredibly resilient, and when they are given the chance to speak, they are able to open up to others. From what I observe with clients, they just want to be listened to, and when you are able to provide them that space, that is when you start to see the growth. There is a significantly high correlation with substance use and experiencing a traumatic event. Our youth have been through many difficult situations in their lives, and yet, they are still able to feel hopeful, and are just looking for support and guidance.

How common is opioid misuse among the youth you serve? What type of help do you provide as a therapist to someone who is trying to recover from opioid misuse?

KRISTEN: Opioid misuse among adolescents is more common than parents and youth believe. Oftentimes, youth are unaware that they are using opioids due to the substances being mixed into drinks or packed with other substances that they are using. I have heard from multiple clients that they did not realize that their cartridge was mixed with heroin until after the fact. Furthermore, opioid misuse tends to be even more prevalent in the young adult population (18-24yrs old). When completing assessments, this is when I can start to see the increase in opioids is clearly having an impact in their life. Young adults tend to still be impulsive, and oftentimes aren't sure what they have used or how often they have done so.

As a therapist, my first step with working with clients is providing education about what they are consuming, and how this impacts their body, and can lead to more addictive tendencies. Oftentimes, this is enough for clients to not want to use substances that they are unsure what is in them. However, if the client is struggling with an opioid use disorder then we work on not only education, but also behavioral interventions. I also will work with the clients on managing their withdrawals, relapse potential, and cravings by seeing if medication assistance programs is something that they are interested in.

What is harm reduction? Can you also provide an example and share why it’s important.

KRISTEN: Harm reduction is essential when working with youth. Harm reduction allows the client to pick their goals and have a more collaborative approach in their treatment versus in a traditional setting, there is more of a directive approach that comes from the provider. Harm reduction allows the clients to decide what kind of life they want to live without having to choose abstinence in order to feel successful. There is a large belief that clients need to be fully abstinent in order to recover, but abstinence is not for everyone. Also, if a client is not able to maintain full abstinence, that does not mean that they are in denial or that this is their disease speaking. An example of harm reduction is providing clean needles to people who use heroin. By providing people with clean needles, the transmission of Hepatitis C and HIV is significantly reduced, and people start to feel more empowered to take better care of their bodies when using.

What is one advice you would give to parents who are trying to support their child/teen's recovery from substance use?

KRISTEN: Be patient and understand that there is hope for the child/teen to recover. Speak with your child/teen to better understand why they are using, what are they struggling with, and create a supportive recovery plan together. Also, when there is a lapse or relapse, do not catastrophize, but be emotionally supportive to the youth. Furthermore, engage in your own therapy in order to help you learn tools on how you can best support your child/teen.

How is therapy still happening at Kenneth Young Center during COVID-19? How can someone set up an appointment to see a therapist at KYC?

KRISTEN: Our therapists are busy bees! All of the behavioral health outpatient and community living teams are working around the clock in order to best support clients during this time. In terms of substance use treatment, we are providing Intensive Outpatient Groups (two hours a week) via zoom on the adolescent and adult outpatient team. In order to do this group, all clients would need to do a substance use assessment in order to see if they would qualify for services. They can reach out to our intake worker, Liz Jefferson at 847-524-8800 Ext. 136 and express that they would like to schedule a substance use assessment. Danielle K. does the adult (25yrs+) assessments and Kristen H. does the child/teen/young adult (up to 24yrs old) assessments. We are also providing individual substance use treatment via zoom.


  • Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255

  • SAMHSA’s National Hotline: 800-662-4357 for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. They have services in both English and Spanish.

  • CARES Hotline: 800-345-9049- for individuals with Medicaid who are in crisis and are requesting an assessment in order to see if hospitalization is needed Kenneth Young Center Intake Line : 847-524-8800 Ext. 136- if we aren’t able to directly provide services, we have a referral resource list that we use in order to help the families become connected

NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness- there are a variety of different support groups that can be found on this website - link

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