Breaking Down the Uptick in Adolescent Overdoses

Reuters

The leading cause of death for Americans under 50 is now accidental death by drug overdose. There’s been a significant climb in overdose deaths among those under 18.

When it comes to acknowledging the opioid epidemic, the U.S. has been faced with some harsh realities over the past several months. Perhaps most notable is a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicates the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 is now accidental death by drug overdose. The 2016 count of lives lost exceeds 64,000, a 19 percent increase from the previous year’s 52,000. These figures are heartbreaking.

 

Perhaps a more important statistic is that overdose deaths among adolescents (those ages 12 to 17) are up as well, with a strikingly similar 19 percent increase in the past year. This information is significant, and not just because it’s alarming. It also begs a different approach in how to address the problem.

 

Several governmental actions have been taken to curb the effects of this devastating crisis. Many states have adopted Good Samaritan laws, which encourage bystanders to call law enforcement for help if there’s concern for a potential overdose, without fear of prosecution for being involved in illicit activities themselves. There are also federal regulations with heavy sanctions on misguided prescribers who may be buffering their revenues by pumping out scripts for prescription opioids. Plus, there’s the overdose-reversing drug Narcan and subsequent funding for free community trainings, with ease of access through your physician or local pharmacy.

But where is the haste toward prevention?

 

In my 13 years working in the mental health and addictions counseling field, I can list over a dozen adolescent treatment programs (that I was personally acquainted with) that have closed simply due to lack of census. Services were being offered, but few were using them. Some of these programs, responding to an increase of young adults (18- to 26- year-olds) in need of treatment, converted their juvenile programs to fit the business’s needs.

Alongside the trend for more young adults seeking treatment, service providers continued to see further declines in adolescents accessing services. In essence, what we’re seeing is a decrease of identification in teens, and an increase as they transition into adulthood. There’s something horribly wrong with this picture. As a culture, we’re being reactive to a crisis as opposed to placing efforts to be proactive. This, unfortunately, is a making of the tragedy we see on the news each and every day.

 

Yes, prevention does exist; however, it’s fragmented at best. Most common prevention efforts take place in the school setting. One of the most frequently used school-based prevention programs has been empirically suggested to be ineffective, and yet the program gets renewed year after year in some states. Some states’ education departments require that school boards employ a specialist to handle substance use and other crises in their students; however, these professionals often occupy several roles within the district, and their time is often stretched too thin. Programming targeting parents to provide information on current trends and concerns regarding substance use are lightly attended. I’ve facilitated many of these workshops myself; in a student population of 1,200, if you can get 20 parents to attend, you’re in luck.

 

One thing is blatantly clear: When we’re not appropriately addressing substance use and addiction in adolescence, we are inundated with young adults literally fighting for their lives shortly thereafter.

I’m not saying that the approach we’re taking to the opioid crisis is wrong. Rather, it’s incomplete. We need to start the conversation about drug use and addiction at an early age. And no, “just say no” isn’t an acceptable means of prevention. “Just say no” is something that we feel more comfortable doing. We can just check it off the list, say that we “had the conversation,” and be done with it. In order to create change, we have to be OK with getting uncomfortable. This is how we’re going to save these kids lives.

Talk to your families about substance use. If you have a family history of addiction, there’s all the more reason to do this – your children may have a predisposition. Go to prevention programs offered in your community. Most, if not all, are free. Bring your kids with you. Talk about the program on the drive home. Have family dinners once in a while. Bring up any pop-culture or media references to overdose deaths, and listen to their reactions. Reach out and call the school your child attends to find out how they address prevention. Acquaint yourself with the personnel who coordinate it. Introduce your child, too. Research other agencies in your community, and participate or volunteer in their events from time to time.

 

There are limitless ways that we can make small impacts in our families and our communities. Stigma usually hold us back. Stigma also adds to this crisis. However, if we’re more active in our prevention efforts, not only will we see a reduction in adolescent overdoses, but over time we will not have an opioid epidemic on our hands.

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Are You an Addict? Signs of a Prescription Drug Addiction

You just may not know you’re addicted when your drug dealer is your doctor.

Woman is suddenly stricken with sadness

When you’re sick or have suffered from a serious injury, the first few days after a visit to the doctor you rely heavily on the prescribed drug to ease the pain and get you through the day. However, you may reach a point where you feel compelled to continue taking the prescription long after you need it. If you think you or a loved one might have a problem with prescription drugs, there are some red flags you should watch out for.

The Cheat Sheet spoke with some of the country’s top addiction experts to learn more about prescription drug abuse.

There is sudden behavior change

One of the first signs of a prescription drug addiction is an abrupt change in behavior. If you suspect the abuse of prescription medication, take note of unusual behavior you hadn’t observed before.

Psychologist Matthew Polacheck, director of outpatient services at the Betty Ford Center in West Los Angeles, said behavioral changes may also be accompanied by cognitive and physical changes. “The first thing we look for is a change in behavior of any kind. [Someone] who never naps comes home and goes to sleep. [Someone] who is passive suddenly becomes more euphoric. More specific behavior includes nodding off, drowsiness, slurred speech, confused thinking, and pupils can also be constricted.”

The drug becomes part of a daily routine

Medications on shelves of medicine cabinet

If you or someone you know can’t seem to go a day without a prescription drug that was meant for short-term use, this is another red flag. Over time, short-term medication should be slowly tapered down until there is no longer a need for it.

Audrey Hope, an addictions specialist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction Treatment, said if there is difficulty in stopping a drug, this should be a cause for concern. “The main sign that you are a prescription drug addict is that you use the drugs every day. You can’t function without them. You rely on them. You need them. You lie to yourself that it is for the ‘pain’ and because ‘the doctor prescribed it.’ You say it is OK to use them,” said Hope.

More of the drug is used than prescribed

Doctor handing pills to a patient

Another sign of trouble is using too much of the prescription and running out of the drug much earlier than expected considering the prescribed amount. Someone desperate for a refill may resort to manipulative behavior to obtain the drug, said Plattor. “Other signs of prescription addiction can include manipulative behaviors such as lying, stealing, using more of the drug than is prescribed, poor decision-making, ‘losing’ prescriptions often, and obtaining a number of prescriptions for the same drug(s) from more than one doctor,” Plattor said.

Misconceptions about prescription drug addiction

man pouring pills into his hand

There are many misunderstandings when it comes to an addiction to prescription drugs. Here are some of the most common ones.

Myth: Pain pills are the only addictive prescription drugs

Pink pills

While pain medications are commonly abused, there are many others that can become addictive. “In addiction treatment, what we see most is opioid abuse. We also see abuse of ADHD medications, such as Adderall or Ritalin. Medications like benzodiazepines can also be substances of abuse. Drugs given for anxiety or depression, especially when given without concurrent psychotherapy, can lead to substance abuse problems,” said Dr. Constance Scharff, the research director of addiction treatment center Cliffside Malibu and author of Ending Addiction for Good.

Myth: I trust my doctor so I don’t need to ask questions

Doctor looking at tablet

Ask questions about your prescription, and don’t just blindly trust your doctor. It’s important to check with your doctor and make sure you understand side effects as well as how much medicine you should take and when to stop. You should also let your physician know if you’re having a hard time stopping your medicine.

Where to get help

Psychologist making notes

If you’re looking for assistance for yourself or a loved one, know there is quality help out there. You can reach out to a support group or consider seeking the services of an inpatient or outpatient detox program. You can start your search online on websites such as VictoryRetreatMontana.com. 

 

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