Substance Abuse A Different World Griswold Center Strives To Meet Teenage Addiction Sufferers Where They Are

To hear Donna Wood tell it, the world of adolescent substance abuse isn’t necessarily any better or worse than it’s been for the past few decades. It’s just … different.


“I think it’s a changing problem,” said Wood, director of Behavioral Health Services at Griswold Behavioral Health Center, which is part of Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer.

“It’s talked about much more than it used to be,” she added, “but kids are into different sorts of things now. At one time, it was the basic alcohol or marijuana. Now we’re seeing some designer drugs, like ecstasy, and — unfortunately — a resurgence of heroin.”

Griswold’s counselors see these problems firsthand, treating teenagers and adults alike through a series of intensive outpatient counseling and education programs. While the hospital has inpatient detox services for patients with dual diagnoses — a mental diagnosis plus substance abuse — most addiction sufferers there partake in the outpatient programs. And for most, they’re working.

“We are as effective as the person’s motivation,” Wood said. “We have a fairly low rate of recidivism, but it takes commitment on the part of the individual. We guide them in the right direction, but they have to do the hard work.”

And with the sheer variety of drugs being used today by adolescents — from the usual suspects, such as alcohol and heroin, to new problems like ecstasy and prescription painkillers — there’s a lot of work to be done, one step at a time.

Changing Lives

At Griswold’s outpatient clinic, counselors direct individual, group, and family programs for adults and adolescents with addictions — not only to substance abuse, but also to gambling and sex. Many alcohol and drug addicts are referred to area inpatient detox programs, such as Providence Hospital in Holyoke, Adcare Hospital in Worcester, and the Carlson Recovery Center in Springfield.

“We work very closely with all the other agencies in the area,” Wood said. “They refer to us often for outpatients, and we refer to them for inpatients.”

Those who are deemed appropriate cases for Griswold’s outpatient care are literally immersed in the programs, which typically involve three-and-a-half-hour sessions, four days per week, for five weeks, followed by an aftercare program of weekly meetings for 10 weeks.

Psychology is a factor in the sessions, Wood said, but so is an appeal to common sense. “They talk about the role of nutrition, what happens to the body when substances are introduced, how alcohol and drugs affect someone’s relationships with others, any number of subjects along those lines. It’s basically a 12-step program.”

For younger patients, referrals can come from plenty of sources — families, school districts, court systems, even friends.

“Our services have grown considerably — most recently in the adolescent group,” Wood said. “We take older adolescents in the evening, who have demonstrated the ability to understand what’s going on and participate. And it has been very successful.”

Wood hesitates to say that today’s adolescent drug problem is worse than in past years — “for anyone suffering from addiction, if they seek help and come in for treatment, it’s a serious problem” — but she is concerned about the growing prevalence of heroin. “I think it’s really inexpensive in relation to cocaine and some other drugs,” she said. “That may be one reason we’re seeing a lot of it.”

Use of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, recreational drugs such as ecstasy, and even ketamine — a cat tranqilizer — are on the rise, Wood added.

The rise in illicit prescription drug use alone is causing alarm among parents. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2003 Monitoring the Future survey of teenagers, 10.5{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of 12th-graders reported using Vicodin for non-medical reasons, and 4.5{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} reported using OxyContin without a prescription.

Trends like these make treatment a more complicated matter simply because there are more substances being abused — and, seemingly, more reasons for using them — than ever before.

Attitude Shift

If adolescent addicts have one thing in common, however, it’s the notion — at least early in their drug use — that they can handle it.

“These are very destructive drugs, and can cause a lot of brain damage, so we’re trying to get as much education as possible out there,” Wood said. “I don’t think they take it seriously. Youth have this way of thinking, ‘it can’t happen to me.’

However, she was quick to add, “I think that attitude crosses all strata of society. It’s just the drug of choice that changes over time.”

One thing that does not change, she noted, is the important of an individual’s commitment to escaping the grip of alcohol and drugs and learning to live cleanly with an addiction.
That said, “there are a whole lot of reasons people aren’t successful,” Wood added. “It’s really very complex — there are psychosocial issues, mental issues, certainly there may be stressors outside the clinic that impact on the patient. If someone isn’t successful the first time, we try to make sure the door is always open if that person wants to try again.”

Unfortunately, she said, state budget cuts over the past several years have made it more difficult for addicts to make a full recovery because they have caused the elimination of residential post-detox programs — the natural middle stage between detox and outpatient care.

“The residential piece is useful, and that’s gone,” she said. “We’ve lost a large number of substance-abuse beds over the past year and a half. It’s really a shame, because we’re seeing folks who could be treated end up in emergency rooms with more advanced illnesses because their substance abuse hasn’t been adequately treated.”

That gap only makes the services offered by Griswold, and other facilities like it, more important, Wood said. “We intend to continue to grow our outpatient substance abuse services and reach more and more adolescents.”

And in the world of addiction, that’s a demographic whose needs are only growing more dire.