Study Reveals Teens Not Seeking Treatment Will Experience Chronic Relapse

A study completed in 2006 and published by the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism revealed intriguing information about teen alcohol abuse and chronic relapse.


Essentially, the study found that those who become alcohol dependent before the age of 25 are less likely to ever seek treatment than those who become alcohol dependence at age 30 or older. This same group (those 25 and younger) is also more likely to have multiple dependence episodes of longer duration than those who become alcohol dependent later in life. Lastly, the younger group of alcohol-addicted individuals met more of the alcohol dependence diagnostic criteria than those 30 or older.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence. The DSM is a standardized text and clinical reference used by psychologists and therapists across North America to diagnose their clients. In the most recent edition, there are eleven different criteria for determining the severity of an addiction. The number of criteria present for a patient indicates the severity of the addictive disorder. For example, 2-3 criteria indicate a mild disorder; 4-5 criteria indicate a moderate disorder; and 6 or more of the 11 criteria indicate a severe disorder. The following are the criteria listed in the newest version of the DSM:


  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than the you meant to
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of substance use
  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
  7. Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts the you in danger
  9. Continuing to use, even when the you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.


The study found the importance in systematically counseling teens about their drinking. This is especially important because of the results of the research but also because typically medical providers tend to under-diagnose teens ages 14-18 who use, abuse, and are dependent on alcohol.


Even if a teen gets support by going to a treatment center, teens have obstacles to sobriety – his or her level of maturity, still feeling identified with the glamour of using drugs, an inability to surrender to treatment because of not yet hitting bottom, and returning to the same peer group after treatment. These factors play a significant role in a teen’s ability to get and stay sober.


Furthermore, teens that chronically relapse might still be experiencing difficult circumstances that mirror the reasons that got them drinking in the first place. They may not have the skills to cope with difficult emotions that, in turn, lead to drug use. There might be an existing mental illness; there could be an undiagnosed medical concern; or there might be peers, friends, or family members around them who are still using.


Creating a life of sobriety for adolescents includes treating not just the substance abuse but also treating any existing mental illnesses, addressing the underlying issues, providing teens with healthy coping mechanisms, creating strong support networks, and prescribing non-addiction medication, if necessary, to treat any physical concerns.


Even if all these problems were addressed for a teen, it’s true that there still might be a return to old habits. Nonetheless, when all issues – emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual – are resolved, chronic relapse may disappear. Sure, there might still be a relapse from time to time, but the overall recovery process is a move towards sobriety.




(2006, September 5). Early Alcohol Dependence Linked to Reduced Treatment Seeking and Chronic Relapse. Early Alcohol Dependence Linked to Reduced Treatment Seeking and Chronic Relapse. p. 2. doi:10.1037/e554712006-001.