Treatnet Family: Addressing adolescent substance use and related problems through family-based approaches 

© Nick Danziger for the UNODC-WHO programme on Drug Dependence Treatment and Care

21 June 2021 – With adolescence an important time in building young people’s resilience towards substance use and delinquency, the protective potential of family interactions at this age is key. To promote this, UNODC has developed Treatnet Family – a science-informed training package on elements of family therapy, intended to support practitioners in the health, social and criminal justice sectors who work with youth and their families in resource limited settings.

Family therapy is an evidence-based intervention for treatment of drug use disorders recommended in the UNODC/WHO International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders. Treatnet Family is part of the UNODC Treatnet capacity building package on drug use disorder treatment, that was designed to increase the level of knowledge and skills of professionals working in the field of substance use disorders, and a tool to assist Member States in their efforts to improve quality of drug treatment services. Following previous trainings conducted in different regions in Asia and in West Africa, most recently UNODC conducted a capacity development workshop for 35 practitioners from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia delivering services for adolescents with substance use problems.

Held over five days in a virtual format and with simultaneous interpretation into five languages, the workshop provided an opportunity for exchange between professionals to discuss ways to address drug use disorders, particularly among youth, and to learn new skills to help families affected by substance use and associated problems. One participant shared an example on how gridlocked family interactions could be challenged, highlighting how a perspective change in asking family members to “catch their child doing something nice” rather than looking out for the problem behaviour often starts dominating family communication.

By looking at substance use problems from a systemic perspective, that considers an individual in context, the workshop provided new perspectives to practitioners, which they can apply in helping families break negative cycles in their interactions and instead explore new strategies  to communicate with each other, that have been found to be effective in reducing adolescent substance use and criminal behaviour while improving mental health.  

Towards the conclusion of the five days, the 35 participants presented their follow-up plans, with many indicating their interest to support further expansion of substance use treatment services for adolescents, including through elements of family therapy, in their countries. “For me,” one participant reflected, “finding human connection is the opposite of addiction. This is possible through Treatnet Family.”