October 24, 2013
When looking at the recent statistics, it is easy to see why educators and healthcare professionals consider prescription drug abuse as a societal problem that has become ‘standardized’ within the culture of our nation’s young adults. The problem is spreading, mainly because of accessibility and social perception.
Why is this Cause for Concern?
Many parents and guardians fail to recognize the extent of prescription opioid misuse amongst teenagers. The risk of improper use of these painkillers is not clear with many adults because so few people read the warning labels that come with their medication. These substances have rapidly grown to become the third most commonly abused drug for teenagers, behind only marijuana and alcohol. However, among younger students, these medications are becoming far more popular than marijuana and alcohol.
Why Parents Should be Concerned about this Trend?
Many young adults believe that experimenting with prescription opioids is somehow safer than using illicit substances that are commonly referred to as ‘street drugs’. The thought process is that because a physician prescribes them to someone to help with a legitimate medical problem, these opioids cannot be as dangerous as methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine. Unfortunately, this is not true. The misuse of opioids may be harmful in a number of different ways:
- They are addictive – Opioids may be physically and mentally addictive. This could lead to the user’s body becoming accustomed to having the substance in his or her system. Over time, to reenact the same feeling, the user will need to take more than before. Whereas a single pill may have provided them with the sensation they were after earlier, now it takes a pill and a half, soon it may take two. This increases the risk of a potentially fatal overdose.
- The risk of withdrawal symptoms – Because the body becomes accustomed to having opioids available, a sudden halt in using could lead to withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms could lead to the long-term user ingesting opioids again in order to halt those uncomfortable feelings. The symptoms of withdrawal include cold chills, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, aches in the bones and muscles, and intense restlessness. Going through withdrawal symptoms unattended may also lead to suicidal feelings or severe depression.
- The risk of an overdose – Even without the gradual increase in tolerance, many of the opioid medication is crushed up, injected or snorted. This circumvents the time-released mechanism of the pain reliever. This could result in an accidental overdose because it causes the drug to enter the system all at once.
- Combining it with other things – It is common to see teens combine prescription opioid painkillers with other drugs and/or alcohol. This can increase the odds of a dangerous overdose and may result in risky decision-making.
Why is this Becoming a Problem for Young Adults?
Part of the problem is misinformation and lack of knowledge. Many teens (and adults) who abuse prescription painkillers have no idea what the risks associated with this type of behavior will be. Alternatively, it may be because teenagers want to experiment or find alternative ways to deal with stress. Some of the most common reasons include:
- A lack of understanding – Even though there are countless awareness campaigns for street drugs, RX abuse has not received a lot of attention in schools until recently. The assumption for many students is that if it is safe for someone that he or she knows, it must be safe for him or her as well. The belief is that these are created in a pharmaceutical facility and therefore must somehow be safer, even when used improperly.
- Accessibility – While students may not be comfortable discussing the use of heroin or cocaine, it is far easier to discuss RX abuse because it is more commonly accepted (which refers back to the initial problem, a lack of understanding). Because physicians freely prescribed these opioid painkillers until recently, it was far easier to reach into the medicine cabinet and grab a few, than it is to find an actual dealer who sells LSD, heroin or other narcotics.
- To deal with stress – It can be challenging for teenagers to have to deal with social acceptance, trying to maintain grades and other factors that are involved in becoming a young adult. Many of these teenagers have yet to learn how to deal with stress in a healthy way, often opting to self-medicate by using these substances.
What Can the Parents/Guardians Do?
The truth is that no one can monitor their children 24/7; to do so would not only hinder their development into adulthood, but it is not a good situation for either party. However, there are some things that you are able to do to minimize the risk of issues with medication abuse:
- Address the issue – One of the most important determining factors is whether parents have an honest dialogue with their children regarding the use of drugs. Studies show that demonizing substance abuse and using hyperbole to scare teenagers does very little good and may even have adverse results. An open dialogue can help because it shows that you respect your child’s intelligence.
- Keep track of your medication – One of the best ways to make sure that no one in your household is actively taking more medication than needed is by being proactive in tracking its use. While it may happen that you make a mistake while counting and find you are one or two short before you need a refill, missing many more than that could be cause for concern.
- Make sure to keep the medication locked up – It may also be a good idea to limit access to these pills or powders. By ensuring that access is limited, you are removing one of the primary motivators why teenagers decide to use in the first place – it is readily available.
Just opting for one of these steps is not as effective as making sure that you implement all three. While you can lock up your prescription drugs, if you do not address the issue, they may still get access to them elsewhere. This only further emphasizes the need for education and guidance.