Youth substance use is a serious and complicated problem, one that applies to children in the foster care system and those who are not.

Despite some assumptions, foster environments themselves are not conducive to substance use, nor are tragic circumstances a prerequisite to foster placement and thus a main contributing factor. However, there are pre-and-post placement factors that do put foster youth at higher risks for substance use and self-medication.

To highlight Children’s Mental Health Awareness, we wanted to take a deeper look at youth substance use among children in foster care, including the risk factors that may lead a child in the foster system to self-medicate. Here’s what to know.

Substance Use in Foster Care: Statistics

There are nearly 425,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. And compared to their peers who are not in foster care, this vulnerable youth population faces a higher risk of substance use at a young age and a higher risk of substance use disorder in their lifetime.

In many cases, foster youth substance use is a form of self-medication for issues related to trauma and mental health. It’s estimated that 80% of children in foster care struggle with one or more mental health disorders, compared to 18-22% of the general population. This includes a 5x higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and significantly higher rates of alcohol and drug dependence.

Risk Factors for Substance Use in Foster Care

A big part of preventing substance use in youth is understanding why it happens. And when it comes to children in foster care, there are a myriad of factors that provide context to this heightened risk:

  • Parental use of substances 39% of children in foster care were removed from their homes due to parent drug or alcohol use. This highlights the genetic risk of substance use disorder, but also the connection between parental substance use, child neglect, and abuse.
  • Mental health conditions – Children in foster care experience mental health disorders at rates that are exponentially higher than that of the general population. PTSD, depression, and anxiety are all prevalent and can lead to self-medication as a means of reducing symptoms.
  • History of maltreatment and stressful home environments – Foster children may experience physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse in childhood. They may also come from homes where they were rejected for their sexual or gender identity. These are all possible precursors to substance use and other maladaptive behaviors.
  • Limited supervision – Another risk factor for substance use among foster youth is a lack of supervision, both in their previous home environment and/or in a foster home environment.
  • Easy access to substances – Children may have had access to substances in their home, or have grown up in an area where drugs and alcohol were readily available.
  • Loneliness – Foster youth may experience loneliness or a lack of meaningful connection to others, which can in turn lead to depression and self-medication.

Spreading Awareness About Youth Mental Health

It is always important to highlight the mental health of children, including children in the foster care system.

In spotlighting Children’s Mental Health Awareness, we encourage you to educate yourself on the realities of mental health and substance use disorders among foster kids. These are issues that can extend into adulthood and impair both physical and mental health, limiting opportunities for foster children to lead fulfilling lives as adults. Spreading awareness helps start a conversation and reduce the stigma—and that can mean more youths getting help when they need it.

And for families trying to cope with youth substance use, please reach out to our team at Retreat Family to learn about the tools and resources that we can provide.