"We need to build a better bridge": findings from a multi-site qualitative analysis of opportunities for improving opioid treatment services for youth

Harm Reduct J. 2022 Apr 17;19(1):37. doi: 10.1186/s12954-022-00623-7.


Background: Adolescence and young adulthood is an important period for substance use initiation and related harms. In the context of the ongoing opioid crisis, the risks for youth (ages 16-29) who use opioids are particularly heightened. Despite recommendations to adopt a developmentally appropriate and comprehensive approach to reduce opioid-related harms among youth, data continue to show that youth are not adequately engaged in opioid treatments and encounter many barriers. The aim of this study is to identify youth-centered opportunities for improving opioid treatment services.

Methods: This paper reports multi-site qualitative findings from youth participating in the 'Improving Treatment Together' project, a community-based participatory project being conducted in British Columbia and Alberta, two western Canadian provinces that have been dramatically impacted by the opioid crisis. Qualitative data were collected during three workshops with youth who used opioids and accessed opioid treatment services in the prior 12 months. These workshops were conducted in three communities following the core elements of human-centered co-design. A multi-site qualitative analysis was conducted to identify within- and between-site themes surrounding youths' needs for improving opioid treatment service experiences and outcomes.

Results: Three overarching needs themes were identified from across the communities. The first reflected youths' difficulties finding and staying connected to opioid treatment services, with the overarching need theme suggesting opportunities to reduce organizational and systems-related barriers to care, such as waiting times and wider information about service availability. The second area of need was rooted in youths' feelings of judgment when accessing services. Consequently, opportunities to increase respectful and empathic interactions were the overarching need. The final theme was more nuanced across communities and reflected opportunities for an individualized approach to opioid treatment services that consider youths' unique basic safety, social, and health needs.

Conclusions: This study identifies fundamental directions for the operationalization and implementation of youth-centered opioid treatment services. These directions are contextualized in youths' lived experiences accessing services in their local communities, with overarching themes from across sites strengthening their transferability to other settings.

Keywords: Adolescents; Co-design; Community-based participatory research; Harm reduction; Opioid agonist treatment; Opioid use; Opioid use disorder; Qualitative analysis; Young adults; Youth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alberta
  • Analgesics, Opioid* / therapeutic use
  • British Columbia
  • Humans
  • Research Design*
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid