Olena Mazurenko

Substance use disorder prevention among youth focus of IU research

Note: This story was written prior to Teresa Bell leaving Indiana University. Olena Mazurenko, associate professor at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, is currently leading this project.

Since the opioid epidemic swept across the country, much of the focus has been on adults who are misusing opioids and synthetic drugs.

But each year, more than five million adolescents are being treated for injuries in the U.S., making injury the most common reason adolescents are prescribed opioids. In fact, adolescents who have experienced a traumatic injury are much more likely than their uninjured peers to develop problems with substance use.

Researchers are digging into how injured adolescents began using prescribed opioids for nonmedical use in hopes of informing substance use disorder prevention interventions among one of our country's most vulnerable populations. The project is part of IU’s Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge.

Through her research, Bell and her team have found that one in eight adolescents are diagnosed with a substance use disorder and one in 10 experience an overdose in the five years following their injury. The team also has found that 17 percent of adolescent patients take prescription pain medication for years after their injury. Additionally, very few are treated for common problems following trauma including anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping.

What is unknown is whether this increased risk is due to exposure to trauma itself, how injury is managed by medical providers and whether there are underlying differences between people who are injured and those who are not.

The goal of the project is to understand how the care adolescents receive influences their recovery, including their post-injury pain and prescription use.

A team is working with 23andMe and surveying injured adolescents and their peers for two years to learn about the different ways genetics, as well as support from family, friends and doctors, can help adolescents cope with changes in physical and mental health after trauma.

Their goal is to identify better ways to care for injured adolescents that will reduce substance use, as well as prevent chronic pain, disability, social and mental health issues, and difficulties at school or work.