Interventions for Substance Use Disorders in Adolescents: A Systematic Review

Interventions for Substance Use Disorders in Adolescents: A Systematic Review

Steele, D. W. Becker, S. J. Danko, K. J. Balk, E. M. Saldanha, I. J. Adam, G. P. Bagley, S. M. Friedman, C. Spirito, A. Scott, K. Ntzani, E. E. Saeed, I. Smith, B. Popp, J. Trikalinos, T. A.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
OBJECTIVES: This systematic review (SR) synthesizes the literature on behavioral, pharmacologic, and combined interventions for adolescents ages 12 to 20 years with problematic substance use or substance use disorder. We included interventions designed to achieve abstinence, reduce use quantity and frequency, improve functional outcomes, and reduce substance-related harms. DATA SOURCES: We conducted literature searches in MEDLINE, the Cochrane CENTRAL Trials Registry, Embase, CINAHL, and PsycINFO to identify primary studies meeting eligibility criteria through November 1, 2019. REVIEW METHODS: Studies were extracted into the Systematic Review Data Repository. We categorized interventions into seven primary intervention components: motivational interviewing (MI), family focused therapy (Fam), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychoeducation, contingency management (CM), peer group therapy, and intensive case management. We conducted meta-analyses of comparative studies and evaluated the strength of evidence (SoE). The PROSPERO protocol registration number is CRD42018115388. RESULTS: The literature search yielded 33,272 citations, of which 118 studies were included. Motivational interviewing reduced heavy alcohol use days by 0.7 days/month, alcohol use days by 1.2 days/month, and overall substance use problems by a standardized mean difference of 0.5, compared with treatment as usual. Brief MI did not reduce cannabis use days (net mean difference of 0). Across multiple intensive interventions, Fam was most effective, reducing alcohol use days by 3.5 days/month compared with treatment as usual. No intensive interventions reduced cannabis use days. Pharmacologic treatment of opioid use disorder led to a more than 4 times greater likelihood of abstinence with extended courses (2 to 3 months) of buprenorphine compared to short courses (14 to 28 days). CONCLUSIONS: Brief interventions: MI reduces heavy alcohol use (low SoE), alcohol use days (moderate SoE), and substance use-related problems (low SoE) but does not reduce cannabis use days (moderate SoE). Nonbrief interventions: Fam may be most effective in reducing alcohol use (low SoE). More research is needed to identify other effective intensive behavioral interventions for alcohol use disorder. Intensive interventions did not appear to decrease cannabis use (low SoE). Some interventions (CBT, CBT+MI, and CBT+MI+CM) were associated with increased cannabis use (low SoE). Both MI and CBT reduce combined alcohol and other drug use (low SoE). Combined CBT+MI reduces illicit drug use (low SoE). Subgroup analyses of interest (male vs. female, racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomic status, and family characteristics) were sparse, precluding conclusions regarding differential effects. Pharmacological interventions: longer courses of buprenorphine (2-3 months) are more effective than shorter courses (14-28 days) to reduce opioid use and achieve abstinence (low SoE). SRs in the college settings support use of brief interventions for students with any use, heavy or problematic use. More research is needed to identify the most effective combinations of behavioral and pharmacologic treatments for opioid, alcohol, and cannabis use disorders.

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Type of intervention

Treatment and Child Welfare Interventions


Drugs and Gambling


Illegal Drugs


Age group

Adolescents (13-18 years)

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