Sue Scheff: Prescription Drugs with Teens

“I know a couple people … the first thing they ever tried, you know, going to their parents’ medicine cabinet and just looking in there and finding what they could get high off of.”

– Marie Bokemeyer, 17

According to the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. And many are just teens.

“Percosets, Valium, Xanax … pretty much anything I could get my hands on,” 17-year-old Mururi Wangu says.

In fact, the abuse of prescription drugs has risen 80 percent in the past 6 years. Experts say, aside from marijuana, teens are abusing these drugs more than all other illicit drugs combined.

Experts say that one reason for such a dramatic jump in abuse numbers is the availability of prescription drugs.

“This is the age of medication,” says Dr. Steven Jaffe, an adolescent psychologist. “I think there’s tremendous amounts of all sorts of medicine out there that are readily available in the bathrooms, in the cabinets at home, as well as on the black market.”

Moreover, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves prescription drugs, teens mistakenly believe that using these drugs – even if they don’t have a prescription – is safe.

“For a while, I thought prescription drugs aren’t as bad because why would the doctor prescribe them if they were dangerous,” 17-year-old Marie Bokemeyer says.

Experts say that’s why parents should start early with a strong, clear message that abusing any kind of drug is wrong. They should also get to know their teens’ friends, limit unsupervised time, keep close track of medications in their homes and don’t assume it can’t happen to their teens.

“I have a thousand parents who say, ‘I didn’t know how much my child was in to.’ And it’s not just denial – teenagers are experts at hiding it,” Dr. Jaffe says.

Adds 17-year-old Kat Peterson: “I didn’t care about the danger of it; that had no effect on me. It was just the convenience of it.”

Tips for Parents

The abuse of prescription drugs has become a major health concern. More teens than ever are turning to their medicine cabinets to get high. Experts say one reason is accessibility. The majority of teens who abuse prescription drugs say they get them for free from their friends or relatives. Another reason these drugs have become so popular is, because the drugs are approved by the FDA, many teens consider them to be safe. Consider these statistics:

In 2005, 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs.

Three percent, or 840,000 teens ages 12-17, reported current abuse of prescription drugs in 2005, making this illegal drug category the second most abused next to marijuana (7%).

For the first time, there are just as many new abusers (12 and older) of prescription drugs as there are for marijuana.

One-third of all new abusers of prescription drugs in 2005 were 12-17-year-olds.

Teens ages 12-17 have the second-highest annual rates of prescription drug abuse after young adults (18-25).

Nearly one in five teens (19% or 4.5 million) report abusing prescription medications that were not prescribed to them.

Teens admit to abusing prescription medicine for reasons other than getting high, including to relieve pain or anxiety, to sleep better, to experiment, to help with concentration or to increase alertness.
More than one-third of teens say they feel some pressure to abuse prescription drugs, and nine percent say using prescription drugs to get high is an important part of fitting in with their friends.

Nearly three out of 10 teens (29% or 6.8 million) believe prescription pain relievers—even if not prescribed by a doctor—are not addictive.

In 2004, more than 29 percent of teens in treatment were dependent on tranquilizers, sedatives, amphetamines and other stimulants.

As a parent, it is important to understand that teens may be involved with legal and illegal drugs in various ways. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports that many teens begin using drugs to satisfy their curiosity, to make themselves feel good, to reduce stress, to feel grown up or to “fit in.” While it is difficult to know which teens will experiment and stop and which will develop serious problems, the National Institute of Drug Abuse says the following types of teens are at greatest risk of becoming addicted:

Those who have a family history of substance abuse
Those who are depressed
Those who have low self-esteem
Those who feel like they don’t “fit in” or are out of the mainstream
Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration puts its seal of approval on prescription drugs, many teens mistakenly believe that using these drugs – even if they are not prescribed to them – is safe. However, this practice can, in fact, lead to addiction and severe side effects. The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research cites the following most commonly abused prescription drugs:

Opioids: Also known as narcotic analgesics, opioids are used to treat pain. Examples of this type of drug include morphine, codeine, OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Demerol (meperidine). In the short term, these drugs block pain messages and cause drowsiness. A large, single dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. Long-term use leads to physical dependence and, in some cases, addiction.

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: These drugs are commonly used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders. Examples include Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium), Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam). CNS depressants slow down normal brain function and can cause a sleepy, uncoordinated feeling in the beginning of treatment. Long-term use can lead to physical dependence and addiction.

Stimulants: These drugs are commonly used to treat the sleeping disorder narcolepsy and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Examples include Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine). Stimulants, which can be addictive, enhance brain activity and increase alertness and energy. They elevate blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. Very high doses can lead to irregular heartbeat and high body temperature
How can you determine if your teen is abusing drugs? The AACAP suggests looking for the following warning signs and symptoms in your teen:

Physical: Fatigue, repeated health complaints, red and glazed eyes and a lasting cough
Emotional: Personality change, sudden mood changes, irritability, irresponsible behavior, low self-esteem, poor judgment, depression and a general lack of interest

Familial: Starting arguments, breaking rules or withdrawing from the family

School-related: Decreased interest, negative attitude, drop in grades, many absences, truancy and discipline problems

Social: having new friends who are less interested in standard home and school activities, problems with the law and changes to less conventional styles in dress and music
If you believe your teen has a problem with drug abuse, you can take several steps to get the help he or she needs. The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests contacting your health-care provider so that he or she can perform an adequate medical evaluation in order to match the right treatment or intervention program with your teen. You can also contact a support group in your community dedicated to helping families coping with addiction.

Substance abuse can be an overwhelming issue with which to deal, but it doesn’t have to be. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America offers the following strategies to put into practice so that your teen can reap the rewards of a healthy, drug-free life:

Be your teen’s greatest fan. Compliment him or her on all of his or her efforts, strength of character and individuality.

Encourage your teen to get involved in adult-supervised after-school activities. Ask him or her what types of activities he or she is interested in and contact the school principal or guidance counselor to find out what activities are available. Sometimes it takes a bit of experimenting to find out which activities your teen is best suited for, but it’s worth the effort – feeling competent makes children much less likely to use drugs.

Help your teen develop tools he can use to get out of drug-related situations. Let him or her know he or she can use you as an excuse: “My mom would kill me if I smoked marijuana!”
Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. Set appointments for yourself to call them and check-in to make sure they share your views on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Steer your teen away from any friends who use drugs.

Call teens’ parents if their home is to be used for a party. Make sure that the party will be drug-free and supervised by adults.

Set curfews and enforce them. Let your teen know the consequences of breaking curfew.
Set a no-use rule for alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

Sit down for dinner with your teen at least once a week. Use the time to talk – don’t eat in front of the television.

Get – and stay – involved in your teen’s life.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
American Academy of Family Physicians
Center for Drug Evaluation and Research
Drug Abuse Warning Network
National Institute on Drug Abuse
Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Substance Abuse & Mental Human Services Administration
U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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