The abuse of prescription drugs by teens has skyrocketed recently. Every day in the U.S., 2,500 teens ages 12 to 17 abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time. Users may be given the medications by family members or friends, but one of the most common sources is the family medicine cabinet. Parents who have been prescribed opioid pain relievers by their family doctor often store unused remaining medication right at home in the bathroom cabinet.
Access to opioids is often the result of a gradual trickle-down effect caused by remote or indirect influences.” Some of those indirect influences include:
Influence #1 – No warnings
A parent of a teen suffers an injury, a bone fracture or undergoes surgery and is prescribed an opiate painkiller by his or her physician, who makes no comment about the possibility of addiction. The pharmacist delivers the goods and warns constipation may be a side effect, but also gives no warning about potential addiction.
Influence #2 – Insecure storage
The parent uses the medication as instructed and as the pain diminishes, discontinues use and stores the remaining pills in the medicine cabinet which is unlocked and accessible to anyone in the family.
Influence #3 – Peer pressure
The teen in the family has heard from friends that an easy high can be scored by checking out parent’s medications and, as peer pressure increases, decides to do just that. Popping Vicodin or OxyContin produces the desired effect, and fairly soon all the remaining pills are gone.
Influence #4 – Cheaper highs
Reproducing that high requires more pills, which can be bought on the street, but they are expensive. The initial ability to source prescription drugs at no cost has led to a need to find other sources of free pills.
Influence #5 – Drug sharing
Emily Jackson, 18, of Arlington Heights, Illinois, attended a family funeral with her father. After the funeral she spent the night with cousins, one of whom offered Emily an OxyContin pill while she was drinking, which she took. Emily died in her sleep that night from respiratory depression, the result of alcohol combined with OxyContin. The pills belonged to her uncle, who had died due to cancer.
Tom McLellan, co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute, a nonprofit organization advocating for improvements in substance abuse policies, said, “If you asked any guy on the street what the leading cause of accidental death is, they would guess gunshot or car accident. They would never imagine it’s pharmaceutical opioids.” McLellan believes everyone involved in the supply of opioids needs to become more responsible, from pharmaceutical companies monitoring and controlling supply to doctors screening patients more carefully and perhaps prescribing less potent painkillers.
Patients, in particular, should be rigorous about storage and disposal of their medications, keeping them in a safe place not accessible to others and seeking a pharmacist’s advice on how to dispose of any unused medication. Ask friends and family members to safeguard their medications as well, especially grandparents, whose medications might be easily accessible to teen family members.
Many teens mistakenly believe that prescription drugs are much safer than illegal street drugs because they were prescribed by a doctor. Unfortunately, what they don’t know can indeed hurt them.
Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a behavioral health facility specifically designed for teen patients with mental illnesses and/or addictions. Our therapists provide state-of-the-art treatment. Call our 24/7 helpline for more information.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer