When dealing with adversities, there are many ways we cope with the world around us. Some people find peace and solace in music, exercising, reading or just venting their problems to someone who cares to listen. Unfortunately, those methods don’t always provide the peace and comfort we are looking for. So, people seek other activities to help them escape.
A prevalent escape that poses a great threat to the success and prosperous livelihood of many foster youth is drug use. Their introduction to drug use can be by passively seeing it used in the home or having a friend offer it. Some feel like it will be the only way to help alleviate mental, physical or emotional pain. Drug use is most certainly a problem within the foster system and needs to be addressed.
Many foster youths are at a higher risk of indulging in drug use due to the adverse experiences that they face. This is why it is imperative that not only case workers, but guardians, school officials and treatment centers understand and assist youth in drug use prevention and treatment. Studies have shown that youth in foster care are at a higher risk of indulging in marijuana, alcohol and other drug use than their peers who are not in foster care. This ultimately also places them at higher risk of developing a drug dependency at an earlier age than their peers as well. Utilizing drugs in general, but specifically at an early age, can have lasting biological effects on young brains that are still in vital developmental stages. According to data from the National Youth in Transition Database, 27% of 17 year olds in foster care had been referred for substance use treatment. If you don’t think this transcends into the lives of foster youth once they exit care, think again. Substance use most likely continues as they exit care, at a higher rate than youth who were never in custody.
As I mentioned earlier, early childhood exposure to drugs can lead to substance use disorders. These can have a heavy impact on chemical reactions within the brain — specifically, the chemical dopamine, which is induced during enjoyable experiences. When someone is indulging in a drug, the drug can cause dopamine to be released in excessive amounts into their system. This in turn creates the “high.” If an individual is not able to find that high, it can impact their personal, social, school and work life. This is why it is vital for the necessary officials to handle the issue of drug use within the foster community with seriousness and care.
So, what do we do? No one entity alone can address and alleviate the impact that drug use has on foster youth. The community — families (foster or birth), the judicial system, the school system and the foster system — must collaborate to first establish initiatives that prevent foster adolescent drug use.
As for youth who actively indulge in drugs, these same entities must band together as a support system to activate initiatives to help youth through their drug use, as well as those going through treatment programs to help them recover from the impact of their drug use. Consistency is also vital. Youth must be constantly reminded that they have support, help is always accessible and, most importantly, they are not alone. With patience, preparation and perseverance, we will see a change in the impact that drug use has on foster youth.