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World first trial to address hidden epidemic of young people medicating trauma with drugs and alcohol

Date Published:
11 Sep 2018
Contact person:
Marion Downey
(02) 9385 0180

Around one in ten adolescents in Australia are believed to be living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered by a traumatic event occurring before the age of 18. Half of these young people are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, putting them at risk of lifetime chronic substance dependence, say researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol, Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW Sydney.

The vast majority of these teens are not receiving treatment for the debilitating cooccurring conditions until later in life, if at all, says international expert in trauma and drug and alcohol dependence, Associate Professor Katherine Mills.

Now, in a world first, Associate Professor Mills is leading a trial of a new psychological treatment which will treat both conditions at once and has already proven highly successful in adults.

“PTSD and problematic substance use are debilitating conditions that frequently co-occur, with onset typical during adolescence,” Associate Professor Mills said.

“The traumas which trigger PTSD include a wide range of experiences, including physical and sexual assault, violence, accidents, and natural disasters.

“We know that adolescence is a formative developmental window when young people are particularly vulnerable to the impact of trauma, PTSD and substance use.

“Traditional approaches treat PTSD and substance use in adolescents separately, but research findings from our group and others highlight the importance of an integrated approach where one clinician treats both conditions at the same time.”

Currently, there are no evidence-based treatments for adolescents with co-occurring PTSD and substance use. In a world-first, NDARC researchers will conduct a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of a new integrated psychological therapy called COPE-A.

COPE-A has been adapted from an effective adult program that was found to reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms when compared to traditional care and significantly reduce the likelihood of a PTSD diagnosis at follow-up.

COPE-A will be compared to Person-Centred Therapy (PCT), which adopts a supportive counselling approach and has also been shown to produce improvements in substance use and PTSD among adults. In the current trial, both therapies have been specifically tailored to meet the developmental needs of adolescents.

“Eligible young people will be randomly allocated to receive one of these therapies and all participants will receive treatment, which includes up to 16 sessions with a psychologist,” Associate Professor Mills said.

“Research focused on the development of new treatments for adolescents is of paramount public health importance and through this trial we hope to improve our understanding of how best to treat young people who are experiencing traumatic stress and using alcohol or other drugs.”

Recruitment for the trial is now open. For more information, or to refer a young person, please visit the COPE-A website.

A webinar presented by Associate Professor Mills and Dr Natalie Peach is available online now: Post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use. Promising new treatments for adults and adolescents.

Media contact:

Marion Downey: (02) 9385 0180 | 0401 713 850 | m.downey@unsw.edu.au

After expressing interest in the trial, the young person will be contacted by a staff member who will conduct a brief interview to assess their eligibility to participate. Some of the key criteria are as follows:

We are looking for people who:

  • Are aged 12-18 years
  • Have had exposure to at least one traumatic event
  • Are experiencing symptoms of PTSD
  • Have used alcohol or other drugs in the past month and have a history of problematic use
  • Are fluent in English

Key information for participants:

  • Eligible participants will be randomly allocated to receive COPE-A or Person-Centred Therapy (PCT).
  • Both treatments consist of up to 16 sessions with a psychologist, as well as up to four optional caregiver information sessions.
  • Sessions are once a week and take approximately 60-90 minutes.
  • All sessions are provided free of charge and will be delivered in the Sydney area, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Randwick or at locations convenient to participants.
  • Participants are able to continue seeing their regular clinician while in the trial.
  • All information provided will remain anonymous and confidential.