Far from being an isolated problem, early and persistent alcohol and other drug (AOD) use is part of a syndrome of problem behaviors that affect not only the youth themselves, but their families and communities as well. Academic difficulties, criminal activity, health-related consequences, poor peer and family relationships, mental health issues, early sexual activity and teen pregnancy often accompany AOD use.
Adolescence is an important time of physical growth and psychosocial maturation, and AOD use interferes with these normal developmental phenomena. AOD use can cause delays or long-term deficits in normal physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. When AOD use begins at an early age, it can result in permanent developmental and neurological damage. Most systems serving youth report that AOD use is a major problem among the youth they serve; however, those in need of treatment are not consistently identified or referred for services. Generally, only those youth which cause serious problems in relation to their AOD use tend to be identified and receive services, usually in the most restrictive settings (group homes, juvenile hall, or correctional institutions). This lack of intervention and treatment results in a huge cost to society, which escalates over time as these youth reach adulthood and enter the criminal justice system or require more serious and costly services.
For the most positive outcomes among youth experiencing AOD-related problems, they must have access to age-appropriate intervention and treatment, practical support such as life skills training and employment, and meaningful opportunities for involvement and leadership. Youth need programs that address their developmental issues, provide comprehensive and integrated services, involve families, and allow youth to remain in the most appropriate, but least restrictive setting, so they can be served within the context of their families, classroom and community.