I Was Sure I Had More Pills Left

Part one: Understanding the Threat and Why it is Growing

Young people are abusing prescription drugs in rapidly increasing numbers. Without concern for safety or side effects, children as young as twelve are habitually taking opiates, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants, to get high and self-medicate. A recent survey by the Partnership for a Drug Free America indicates that one in five teens report taking prescription medication for non-medical purposes. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan reported a 26 percent swell in teenage abuse of Oxycontin-a powerful opiate-since 2002. Overall, the number of teens abusing prescription drugs has tripled since 1992. Just as with other narcotics, the risks to our youth are tremendous, not only as an immediate hazard to their health, but also because it sets teens on a proven path to other criminal behavior. The threat of prescription drug abuse has been largely misunderstood and unobserved; with the menace mounting it is time for that to change.

Understanding the Allure
The issue of prescription drug abuse is not new, so why has it been sidelined for so long, and why has the threat been growing so much faster in recent years? First consider that pills have a connotation of safety, especially for naive or rash young people. The primary reasons for this connotation are because pills are easier to take than smoking pot or drinking alcohol and are professionally manufactured in a lab. They are easily available, comparatively cheap, and inconspicuous to carry around. Furthermore, most teens see them being used legally, often by their parents. A teen might easily say, asking a parent about their prescriptions, “If you can take them, why can’t I? We do it for the same reasons.” Perhaps this is part of what many parents misinterpret about teen drug use. Much more often than a parent might think, teens are abusing prescription drugs not to get high, but rather to be less depressed, less stressed out, more focused, or better rested. If parents are not drawing the line, then how will their children learn to?

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997. Since then most people have come to take it for granted that their lives will be flooded with ads for prescription drugs. These ads do not take a medical degree to understand, yet many of the products they advertise do. Someone who is nineteen now was nine when the floodgates opened. The result is that ever since today’s teens have been aware of prescription drugs, their understanding of them has been largely shaped by the pharmaceutical companies. It should be no surprise that so many teens now believe the industry message, that pills offer a cure for any ill. Which ones to take, many ads suggest, is largely a matter of personal choice. Many young people come to view psychology as a series of problems that can be solved with pills. Being a teenager can mean being fixated on personal problems; sadly, many teens have not realized that abusing prescription drugs only brings them more difficulty.

Drugs Most Commonly Abused
A concise explanation of the drugs most often abused, opiates, CNS depressants, and stimulants, will lay the foundation for parents to be more aware of the issue in their own lives and to protect their children. The myriad side effects and potential interactions with other drugs and existing conditions make these brief explanations only a starting point. Most parents have at least a cursory understanding of opiate abuse, since popular culture is fraught with references to it; opiates are the type of prescription medication most often misused to get high. Opiates, or painkillers, most often taken recreationally include Morphine, Codeine, Vicodin, and OxyContin. The created sensations range from relaxation to euphoria and sedation, depending on the patient, specific medication, and dose. Beyond their tendency to be highly addictive, some medical risks associated with opiates include respiratory depression or arrest, unconsciousness, coma, and death. Derived from the same source as heroin, these drugs are a gateway to a dangerous state of mind.

CNS depressants are legally used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, among other conditions. Among a broad spectrum of effects, they create a feeling of well-being, lowered inhibitions, and usually slow pulse and breathing. Prescriptions most often abused include Valium, Xanax, Seconal, and Amytal. In addition to being highly addictive, regular abuse often triggers life-threatening withdrawal and depression. Medical risks include: lowered blood pressure, poor concentration and fatigue, and confusion; impaired coordination, memory, and judgment; respiratory depression or arrest; and death. Similar to pain killers, CNS depressants are drugs that are commonly abused to smooth the effects of other drugs-often to get to sleep or “come down” after their use, cure a hangover, or just to relax.

Prescription Stimulants are probably the major category of abused prescription drugs least understood by parents. The lack of clear understanding may be because any young person who is prescribed them or abuses them will likely tell parents they do not take them to feel good or get high in the conventional sense. These drugs are almost exclusively prescribed for ADD/ADHD and narcolepsy, and include Ritalin, Adderall, Biphetamine, and Dexedrine. Young people take them to increase energy, mental alertness or awareness, and concentration. Medical risks include rapid or irregular heart beat, reduced appetite, weight loss, heart failure, nervousness, and insomnia. Though less addictive than other commonly abused prescription drugs, stimulants are clearly habit forming. Ritalin has been nicknamed the smart drug because of the number of young people who use it or other stimulants to study all night. These drugs are also regularly used to get through boring or menial jobs and get the energy to stay out all night and party.

With almost half of all Americans now being prescribed medication regularly, many teens simply have to walk into the bathroom to begin exploring prescription drug abuse. A rapidly growing fourth category of commonly abused prescriptions is anti-depressants. Lacking confidence in what can seem like snap decisions by doctors, perceiving them to be as influenced by pharmaceutical companies as they feel themselves to be, many young people are putting themselves on antidepressants. Often teens mix, stop and start, and switch drugs without regard for the potentially deadly consequences. Considering the trust and respect people have always felt for doctors, parents may ask where this new attitude among young people came from.

Why Listen to a Doctor When You Have the Internet?

Doctors and psychiatrists have traditionally been the gatekeepers to prescription drugs. People depend on their medical training and experience to determine which drugs are safe and healthy for their medical problems. Yet with nominal lists of side effects and interaction risks included in all television ads bleeding into people’s sub-consciousness, and more complete information available online, misguided young people increasingly believe they can make these decisions for themselves. The advent of direct-to-consumer drug advertising also means that a dramatically increasing number of Americans take up the ads’ calls to action, and ask their doctors about new drugs. Not surprisingly, many more people are being prescribed medications. Teens are not missing out either; just like adults, they often have little trouble getting a doctor to prescribe them whatever they want. Health insurance will now pay for people to get high.

The growing amount of drugs in more people’s homes means, not only that they are more easily available to teens, but also that they may feel more commonplace and safe to teens. A consequence of this is that many teens are happy to play doctor for their friends. Young people crudely mimic their doctors’ behaviors, using phrases such as, “All you have to do is try a little more or a little less, or you can always switch to something similar.” It is normal to hear teens express this attitude saying something like, “I don’t think it is wrong — when I have the medication I know a friend needs to make them feel better, I give them a pill or two.”

The internet has changed the way people relate to prescription drugs. Doctors are no longer the only source for information and prescriptions. It is easy to get a plethora of concise medical, advertising, and abuse-centered perspectives on any drug online. See the forums on erowid.org for reams of stories or trip reports, conversations, and information about abusing prescription drugs and other illegal narcotics. Teens can easily buy prescription drugs over the internet. For a higher price, dozens of websites fill orders for drugs, no prescription required, though to do so is not legal. Instead, customers are asked to fill out a form describing themselves and their symptoms, often with all the right boxes helpfully pre-checked. All they need is their ATM card. If you find this surprising, just google the name of any of the drugs mentioned above and you will see a slew of legal and illegal purchase options.

The risks of overdosing, date rape, and taking a pill that kills you are things that too many parents as well as teens are not talking about. Experimenting with and becoming dependant on prescription drugs is a swift path to the people, situations, and other drugs that are even more dangerous for teens. Times are changing and so are the cultures and methods of prescription drug abuse. Read on in part two of this essay for a gut-check of how children are being exposed to these threats, and specific ways for families to fight back.

Part Two >>