Not My Teen: Why All Teens Are Vulnerable to Prescription Drug Abuse

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If you’ve read up on the prescription drug addiction epidemic and decided it isn’t something you need to worry about, it may be time to reevaluate. Your teen could be among the one in five adolescents who report abusing prescription drugs to get high.

A children’s health poll from the University of Michigan shows that parents dramatically underestimate the likelihood that their child is using drugs. While parents believe 60 percent of other teens have used alcohol, only 10 percent believe their own teen has engaged in the behavior. According to the Monitoring the Future study, 52 percent of 10th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past year.

Have you made any of these assumptions about your teen?

My Teen Is Too Smart to Use Prescription Drugs

It seems logical that smart teens will understand the dangers of prescription drug abuse and focus their energies elsewhere. But a study of 8,000 people, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, shows that brainy teens, especially girls, are more likely to experiment with drugs.

In the study, young people with high IQs at ages 5 and 10 were at greater risk of drug use at ages 16 and 30. Girls were at more than twice as likely to use marijuana and cocaine by age 30 as their peers. Boys were about 50 percent more likely to use amphetamines, 65 percent more likely to use ecstasy and 57 percent more likely to have used multiple illicit drugs by age 30. Other studies have shown that youth with high IQs are also more likely to drink alcohol excessively and develop alcohol addictions.

If your teen is intellectually gifted, there’s a chance they’re also curious and open to new experiences. Rather than hearing stories from friends, they may want to find out what drugs are like for themselves. The brighter the child, the easier it is to maintain good grades and participate in extracurricular activities while experimenting with prescription drugs.

My Teen Is a ‘Good Kid’

Even if you’ve been blessed with one of the “good teenagers” who brings home good grades, gets along with their classmates, and doesn’t keep you up late worrying at night, prescription drug abuse affects well-behaved and rebellious teens alike. Many parents picture the grubby high school dropout or gang-banger as “druggies,” but prescription drugs have changed the face of the average drug abuser. High-functioning kids, professionals and stay-at-home moms have all fallen victim to the prescription drug epidemic.

Federal statistics reveal that treatment for prescription painkiller abuse has risen 430 percent over the past decade. Prescription drug use has increased in every part of the country. The most dramatic surges have been in West Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine and Vermont. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the most commonly abused prescription drugs are Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Darvocet and Tylenol with codeine.

My Teen Doesn’t Have Access to Prescription Drugs

Millions of Americans use prescription drugs for legitimate medical purposes. These medications have become an acceptable part of our daily lives. Whereas teens used to need a drug dealer to get high, now they sift through the unused – and often unmonitored – bottles of pills in their parents’ medicine cabinets. More than 60 percent of adolescents report that prescription pain relievers are easy to get from the medicine cabinet at home, says SAMHSA.

If you’ve been educated about the prescription drug problem, perhaps you’ve diligently locked your medicine cabinet or disposed of unneeded medications. But what about your teen’s friends? Half of teens surveyed by SAMHSA say prescription medications are easy to get through other people’s prescriptions. Have the parents of your teen’s friends locked away their prescription medications? Have you talked to grandparents and other relatives that your child visits frequently?

According to SAMHSA, 64 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 who have abused pain relievers say they got them from friends or relatives, in many cases without the other person’s knowledge. Prescription drugs are also readily available on the Internet. More than half of teens say prescription pain relievers are “available everywhere,” reports the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

My Teen Would Feel Too Guilty Using Prescription Drugs

You’ve talked to your child enough that they understand your expectations surrounding drug use. You’re confident that their conscience and good upbringing will prevent them from making a poor decision.

While some teens avoid using illicit drugs such as heroin and meth because they are afraid of the consequences, teens perceive prescription drugs very differently. Because prescription drugs are legal and prescribed by doctors, there is a widespread misconception among teens that the drugs are safer than illicit drugs.

According to SAMHSA, one in three teens believes there is less shame attached to using prescription drugs than illicit drugs. And one in five said parents “don’t care as much if you get caught” using prescription drugs.

Of course, educated parents know that prescription drugs are every bit as dangerous as illicit drugs. Health risks range from depressed breathing and impaired cognitive function to dangerously high body temperature and irregular heartbeat. Addiction is among the most common and serious dangers. Deaths from painkillers increased from 4,041 in 1999 to 14,459 in 2007 and are now more common than deaths from HIV, skin cancer and alcoholic liver disease.

Preventing Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

No adolescent is immune to the threat of prescription drug addiction. The following are common risk factors for prescription drug abuse:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • History of getting prescriptions for opiates
  • Mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety
  • Being an adolescent or young adult
  • Being addicted to alcohol or another drug
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of knowledge about the dangers of prescription drug abuse
  • Easy access to prescription drugs

Awareness is the first step to preventing and treating teen prescription drug use. Although it is never pleasant to consider that your teen may be abusing pills, being open to the possibility allows you to start a conversation with your teen. While there is no need to panic if you discover that your teen has considered experimenting with prescription drugs, you do need to take the threat seriously – even if your teen is a good kid.

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