Few Teens With Prescription Opioid Use Disorders Receive Treatment

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Researchers who previously found that about 1 percent of adolescents report symptoms of abuse or dependence on prescription opioid analgesics (“Some Teens Reporting Nonmedical Use of Prescriptions Develop Disorders”) have now estimated that fewer than 12 percent of teens with these problems receive any treatment at all.

Dr. Li-Tzy Wu and colleagues at Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data from the 2005 to 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to learn about treatment use and barriers among teens who abuse prescription opioids. Of 789 12- to 17-year-olds who met diagnostic criteria for opioid abuse or dependence, only 16 to 17 percent had received any substance abuse services or participated in treatment during the past year. Of 999 teens who had one or two dependence symptoms but fell short of meeting diagnostic criteria for a disorder, 9 percent had obtained help.

Overwhelmingly, the most common reason teens cited for not receiving treatment was that they did not perceive a need for it. Fewer than 5 percent of those not receiving treatment—including just 4.2 percent of those who met dependence criteria and 0.6 percent of those with symptoms below the diagnostic threshold for a disorder—said they needed help. The adolescents who did perceive a need for treatment pointed to a variety of psychological and practical obstacles (see table). For example, 34 percent said that they were not ready to stop using the drugs and 22 percent reported that they did not want others to find out about their problem.

Reasons for Not Seeking Treatment Youth with symptoms of prescription opioid abuse or dependence who reported a perceived need for substance abuse treatment indicated reasons for not seeking therapy. Some gave more than one reason.
Reason Percentage Reporting
Not ready to stop using 34
Did not want others to find out about their problem 22
Did not want neighbors to have negative opinions 22
Believed problem could be handled without treatment 21
Had cost concerns (for example, insurance did not cover treatment) 10
Did not know where to go to get treatment 8
Did not think treatment would help 8
Did not have time 8
Could not afford it 6
Treatment programs unavailable 4
Treatment might have negative effect on job 3
Lacked transportation 3
Programs did not have openings 2

Adult awareness and intergenerational communication were keys to adolescents’ getting help. Teens who reported talking to their parents about the dangers of substance abuse were 56 percent more likely to have received services than those who had not.


Wu, L.T., et al. Treatment use and barriers among adolescents with prescription opioid use disorders. Addictive Behaviors 36(12):1233–1239, 2011. Abstract Available