Adolescent Health and Recovery Treatment & Training supporters

Teens battling substance abuse get support, guidance from peers

For adolescents battling substance abuse, the hardest part of recovery can be finding someone who can relate to their experiences.

A unique University of Kentucky intervention program aims to provide just that by connecting adolescents recovering from substance abuse with someone who has been in their shoes. The program, called Youth Peer Support Specialists, is part of the the UK Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Adolescent Health and Recovery Treatment and Training clinic, also known as AHARTT.

Peer support specialists connect with adolescents as they work through recovery, providing them with a person to talk to who has “lived experience.” Each supporter has firsthand experience with substance abuse and ongoing recovery, allowing patients to more closely identify with a member of their treatment team. This level of rapport is often unmatched by any other relationship they have encountered on their recovery journey.

In Kentucky, substance use by adolescents, rates of tobacco use, binge drinking and use of other drugs are higher than the national average. Use of these substances during the adolescent years can quickly lead to dependence and lay the foundation for lifelong use.

Once substance use begins, it changes the biology of the brain and affects life decisions. Specifically, more decisions revolve around the getting and using of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Sustained use makes biological and behavioral changes more entrenched. These changes often amplify feelings of hopelessness and alienation that teens may feel when they begin recovery treatment.

This is where the five Youth Peer Support Specialists working in the clinic aim to make a difference. The “supporters” ‒ James Riggs, Kelli Fullenlove, Josh Roehrig, Aaron Pope and Brittany Poe ‒ have all undergone rigorous training from the state of Kentucky and are certified to work with patients on a one-on-one basis. They receive careful supervision and are in close contact with the clinician caring for the adolescent. The supporters’ main objective is to “bridge the gap from the clinic to the community.”

“As peer supporters, we are able to show them, instead of tell them, exactly how to do this.” Pope said.

Riggs said the supporters’ role is to show adolescents that “people can be cool without using,” The stigma associated substance abuse can be a deterrent that keeps teens from seeking necessary treatment, but the supporters are in a unique position to help adolescents feel better about their recovery journey.

“We are an untapped resource for youth to enter the recovery community without having to deal with the associated stigma,” Roehrig said.


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