Is There a Connection Between Disability and Addiction Among Young People?

Substance use and addiction happen within all groups of people. For a long time, however, not much public attention has been given to individuals with disabilities as related to the substance addiction epidemic. Now we know that people with physical and cognitive impairment may suffer disproportionately from substance use problems. Some research shows although alcoholism and illicit drug use is relatively low among this population, the risk of prescription drug addiction is high. If you are caring for a young person who struggles with both disabilities and addiction, understanding his or her unique needs may inform your caregiving.

What Are the Common Stressors for Young People With Disabilities?

Young people with physical and mental impairment often battle with a range of stress from experiences such as being unseen by society, being considered as an outsider group, social isolation, and the inability to fulfill one’s career ambitions. Young people with disabilities are less likely to achieve a high school or college education. All these stressors may contribute to higher rates of substance use and addiction.

Another reason why young people with disabilities may become vulnerable to addiction is that they sometimes use prescription medication to battle painful conditions, giving them access to prescription drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), individuals with disabilities “experience higher levels of mental health conditions and substance use than do adults without disabilities.” Unfortunately, it seems that disability, mental health issues, and substance addiction can potentially become a vicious cycle, reinforcing each other’s effects.

What Are the Barriers to Treatment?

Substance use among individuals with disabilities may lead to greater adverse effects on the behavioral level. These include risk-taking, moodiness, aggression, and even violence. Meanwhile, other negative physiological consequences can also include cognitive deficit and cardiovascular diseases. Because drugs and alcohol change the brain structure, especially for young people, those with disabilities and substance addiction can experience mental confusion and even coma.

Lack of cognitive skills, mobility, and financial resources may limit people with disabilities from seeking treatment for their addiction. Research in this area has been lacking, and most treatment centers have not developed mature approaches to care for people with both disabilities and substance addiction, so the barriers to treatment are multifold.

What Would Effective Intervention Look Like for Them?

Society as a whole needs to raise awareness about the needs of people with disabilities. There needs to be more research done for directing evidence-based treatment plans and policy-making to clear many of the barriers. For example, treatment facilities need to provide accessible entrances, policy-makers should change exclusive policies, and counseling programs should adapt to the needs of people with cognitive disabilities.

Parents and educators should pay special attention to youth with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The risk factors of young people with these needs include low self-esteem, academic challenges, loneliness, frustration with socializing, and depression. Prevention of substance addiction among these young people would require early identification of learning disabilities and how to cope with them. For those who have developed substance addiction, the treatment also needs to be tailored to deal with both issues.

What Are Common Concerns of People With Disability When They Seek Treatment?

The main concern is still accessibility and mobility. For example, if a person in a wheelchair cannot access all areas of the treatment center, that would not help this person get appropriate care. Secondly, communication can be another challenge. For example, not many treatment centers have sign language counseling sessions, but that is critical when caring for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Reading materials also need to be adapted for those who are blind and need to access information through braille materials.

Apart from these concerns, treatment centers ought to realize the intersection between physical health, mental health, and recovery. Based on this understanding, they should incorporate accessible physical therapy for those with disabilities. All these are of course based on a foundational step — a specialized understanding of specific disabilities, their substance addiction outcomes, and how to best address both conditions.

Many people with disabilities have also lived with a history of trauma. Therefore, another concern is to provide trauma-informed care for their mental health and behavioral health needs. Treatment centers need specialized staff who are trained in supporting trauma-informed recovery and conditions of disabilities.

All in all, it is very important for people with disabilities and substance addiction to find a treatment center that understands and can provide this high level of specialized care. Talking with a professional interventionist can help you determine what kind of treatment fits. 

Do you have a loved one who is a young person with disabilities battling mental health problems and substance addiction? To best help with his or her needs, you need to work with professional interventionists. It requires a high level of specialized care to treat young people with a triple set of conditions: disability, mental health problems, and substance addiction. An experienced interventionist can coach you and help connect you with trustworthy resources, such as accessible treatment facilities and specialized counseling programs. At South Florida Intervention, our trained interventionists have helped many teens and young adults from diverse backgrounds. We value the opportunity to serve you with our best knowledge. In addition to recovery coaching for young people, parent coaching, sober escort services, and detailed case management, we have the expertise and connectedness to plug you into other services. Specialized intervention works for young people with special needs. We are here to help. Call us today at (202) 390-2273.