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Addicted teens need more than a locked cabinet

January 22, 2015
by Johnny Patout, LCSW
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Johnny Patout

At a young age, children are given pills and vitamins that taste and look like candy. Medicine cabinets are stocked full to help with every ache and pain. Parents jokingly refer to strong pain medicine as “the good stuff.” We live in a culture that is very comfortable with over-the-counter and prescription drugs. For teens who struggle with drug addiction, the omnipresence of drugs in the home creates an additional stumbling block to recovery.

It is important for parents and addiction professionals to respond to these challenges with strategies that work. We should develop programs that meet the needs of the whole person, not just to have the individual “stop using drugs” but also to treat the emptiness that created the need in the first place.

Understanding the dangers

While study results vary, my experience with our teenagers over the past year indicates that prescription drug abuse seems to be on the rise. The reason is not difficult to understand. Prescription drugs are easily accessible. Kids can steal drugs from the medicine cabinets in their homes. They can buy them over the counter at grocery stores or get someone else to purchase them.

Often, people who abuse drugs will have their “drug of choice.” But once they move into being addicted, they will go after whatever is available if their drug of choice is not available. They may start raiding their parents' medicine cabinets for what they can get. Oftentimes, that's painkillers.

Illicit drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine carry an ominous reputation, and rightfully so. But when people hear that teenagers get high on drinking cough syrup or popping prescription drugs, too often that is considered a minor issue. Some people underestimate the serious nature of such behavior. In addition, many medical schools spend very little time and effort with their students or residents providing information about the dangers of substance abuse or defining symptoms of addiction.

Drugs such as oxycodone are widely abused and have rapidly gotten out of control. People are seeking prescriptions from their physicians at an alarming rate. If they can’t get oxycodone from a doctor, they can buy it on the street. It certainly has proven to be much more dangerous and addictive than it was first thought to be.

One of the biggest concerns with prescription drug abuse is that it is frequently combined with something else. A teenager may take a prescription drug such as a painkiller from the medicine cabinet, then go to a party and combine that with alcohol. That combination can be lethal.

A drug such as oxycodone has specific effects. Alcohol of course has its degree of effects as well. But combined? The effects are multiplied. One plus one can equal four or more. The two combined can have a synergistic effect, sedating the brain much quicker than the two taken separately. Consider what happened to Cory Monteith, the actor who starred in the television show “Glee.” He overdosed and died from a toxic combination of drugs and alcohol. The impact sedates the brain so much that the respiratory system stops.

Starting the recovery process

We meet our patients at their point of need, but it can go back much farther than the time when they first started abusing drugs. Teenagers who become addicted to mood-altering substances start out because they like the way it makes them feel. Over time, they need more and more to produce the desired effect. As addiction professionals, we know this. We call it “chasing the first high.”

If addicts use because they like the way it makes them feel, or because they don’t like how they feel without mood-altering chemicals in their system, this leads to the question, “Why don't they like the way they feel in the first place?” Why can't they simply be satisfied with life?We attempt to help them identify those underlying issues that are preventing them from simply enjoying life on life's terms.

For each young person, the issue could be different. It could be something as simple as not feeling as though they fit in with their peers. For some, past abuse issues could be at work.

Advice for parents

All parents should speak openly with their teenagers about expectations, in terms of both alcohol and drug abuse. In a 2013 report, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that only 9.1% of parents speak to teenagers about the dangers of drugs. However, teenagers who believe their parents would strongly disapprove of substance abuse are less likely than their peers to use them. Communication always constitutes the first step.

The next step involves securing any mood-altering prescription medications that anyone in the family may have. Parents should either lock the medicine cabinet or secure prescription drugs in a location where they are not likely to be found. If there is prescription medication left over after it was used for what it was intended, they should safely dispose of it. Many pharmacies and physicians have programs that allow for returns of unused prescriptions.

If parents are worried that their child is abusing prescription drugs, they can be informed of the indicators of which to be aware. This is similar to the scenario for abuse of other drugs or alcohol. Some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse that parents should familiarize themselves with are:

  • Mood swings;

  • Changing friends;

  • Drop in grades at school;

  • Change in appetite;

  • Change in sleep patterns; and

  • Change in physical appearance.

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