On the learning curve: the emerging evidence supporting cognitive–behavioral therapies for adolescent substance abuse


Holly Barrett Waldron PhD
Oregon Research Institute
1715 Franklin Blvd
Oregon 97403
Tel: (541) 484 2123
Fax: (541) 484 1108
E-mail: holly@ori.org


Aims  Cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches to intervention for adolescent substance use disorders has been limited and formal controlled clinical efficacy trials have been rare. Moreover, the early literature on the efficacy of CBT for adolescent substance abuse has been characterized by significant methodological limitations. Recent innovations in the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and the recent completion of several randomized clinical trials has brightened the picture with respect to establishing the empirical support for CBT. The aim of this review is to integrate the findings from controlled trials of CBT for adolescent substance abuse.

Method  Studies representing randomized clinical trials were reviewed using criteria provided by Lonigan et al. and Nathan & Gorman as a guide.

Findings and conclusions  Despite some prominent differences in design and methodology, the studies reviewed provide consistent empirical evidence that group and individual CBT are associated with significant and clinically meaningful reductions in adolescent substance use. The evidence for the efficacy of group therapy is particularly important, countering the assertion that aggregating problem youths into group treatment settings is associated with iatrogenic effects. The findings from the randomized trials reviewed represent significant developments in treatment outcome research and lay the foundation for validating CBT for adolescent substance use disorders. Future research directions include improving short- and long-term outcomes, enhancing treatment motivation and engagement, and identifying mechanisms and processes associated with positive change, especially for youths with comorbid conditions.