Debbie Hutchinson, Psy.D., recounts the story of a young teenage girl who told her she had a little flask of alcohol that she brought to school, not only for herself but to pass around among her other middle school friends, too.
Though the kids were not getting drunk, they were experiencing—at an age when their brains were still developing—the alluring effects of alcohol. The door was opened to a path that leads many teenagers to excessive drinking and all the dangers of impaired judgment that go with it.
Hutchinson has a lot of compassion and understanding about teens and their troubles—she heads the Center for Adolescent Mental Health and Wellness, a new treatment program at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach, designed to help local teenagers with alcohol and drug problems, as well as depression, anxiety, eating disorders or other emotional issues.
Who is at risk?
The myth has been shattered that only low-income, inner-city teens are vulnerable.
“New research shows that kids from suburban, affluent families are at high risk,” says Hutchinson. Pressure to achieve academically can create stress that kids try to relieve chemically. But emotional and physical isolation from their parents contributes too, writes Madeline Levine, Ph.D., in her book “The Price of Privilege.” Many well-off parents work long hours, don’t eat meals with their families and don’t know what their teens are up to.
And of course, kids who have money can buy drugs and alcohol more easily than those who don’t.
“There is a great need,” says Hutchinson of treatment for teenagers, adding that many Orange County mental health professionals are pleased this program exists, as many teens need more help than once-a-week therapy sessions.
The Mission Hospital program that Hutchinson manages includes 12-step groups, outpatient treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, teen support groups, parent support groups and psychotherapy.
This is key because depression and other emotional problems often drive the drinking and drugging.
“Teens don’t drink for no reason at all,” says Hutchinson. “Depression, a pressure to perform, challenges within family, being ostracized in peer group—there can be multiple issues that lead kids to try to cope by using alcohol or drugs.”
Noticing the clues
Hutchinson’s program is available for teens who come in on their own or are referred by a parent, teacher or other professionals.
“Parents who notice something’s going on with their teen might not know what to do,” she says. “You should ask, ‘Is my child starting to act differently? Are the grades slipping? Is my child hanging out with a different group?’ These are clues that a teenager might be having a drug or alcohol problem.”
Very often larger family issues are at play—including parents with untreated alcohol and drug abuse problems of their own—which is why Hutchinson’s on-staff team includes a licensed marriage and family therapists.
Hutchinson’s role is to help to determine best treatment for each teen and family. “We want to work with professional partners in the community so when parents call we can connect them to the right resources,” she says.