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Researcher: Treatment of young adults should engage peers

September 22, 2010
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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An Illinois professor is developing a version of the Community Reinforcement Approach

University of Illinois Professor Douglas C. Smith considers the role of peers to be an untapped resource in the treatment of young people ages 18 to 25 with substance use problems. The university reports that Smith has received a $712,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a cognitive-behavioral treatment program in which a friend of each participant will be trained to support the individual in his/her recovery.

Smith believes that for many people entering adulthood, peers might represent a more attractive source of support than groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), where attendees are generally older and where a strong abstinence orientation might not resonate with the young person.

“It is really hard to tell which young adults will continue on to have chronic alcohol problems and which will not, so using a treatment approach that does not assume that all alcohol-dependent individuals will always be alcoholics may be attractive to young adults,” Smith said in an article released by the university’s News Bureau.

The professor at the university’s School of Social Work is developing a treatment strategy called the Peer-Enhanced Community Reinforcement Approach, an adaptation of a treatment that engages family members in reinforcing a client’s positive behaviors. The study will involve 60 young clients selected from a publicly funded outpatient treatment program in Champaign. Each will be asked to select a same-sex friend whom they see at least weekly and who may be interested in participating in counseling sessions.

The friends’ counseling sessions will share techniques for reinforcing clients’ pro-social behaviors. Information about relapse prevention and re-engaging the client who slips also will be available. Recreation vouchers will be available to the clients and the peers as an incentive to participate.

“We’re going to encourage the peer to hang out with the client a lot, but only when they’re not drinking or using drugs,” Smith said. “We want to work with the peer to understand that they can play an important role in whether their friend reduces their use by rewarding abstinence.”

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