Prescription Drug Abuse Skyrocketing Among Youth: Is Your Child Safe?

By David Sack, M.D.

Prescription Drug Abuse

In the fight against teen drug use, it has been a classic case of two steps forward, one big step back. Young people are getting the message about illegal street drugs, but more teens and young adults are using prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications to get high, often with deadly consequences.

Next to marijuana, prescription drugs are now the most abused drug among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription drugs are responsible for a huge spike in teen poisoning deaths, which increased 90 percent between 2000 and 2009.

The drugs most commonly abused among teens and young adults are painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin; stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall; sedatives and tranquilizers such as Xanax and Valium; and over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. Why are these drugs so popular among teens and young adults, and what can parents do to safeguard their kids?

The Problem: Young people believe prescription drugs are safer than street drugs. As a result, they are often the first drug a child tries. Studies by the Partnership for a Drug- Free America have shown that four out of 10 teens believe prescription medicines are safer than illegal drugs and nearly three out of 10 believe prescription painkillers are not addictive. Because doctors can prescribe these medications and their parents may use them for legitimate medical purposes, young people wonder, how dangerous could they be?

What Parents Can Do: Talk to your children about the dangers of prescription drugs and make it clear that drug use of any kind will not be tolerated in your family. Abusing prescription medications is illegal, and can result in heart attack, seizures, stroke, addiction and death, among other problems. Start the conversation early (experimentation often begins as young as age 12) and revisit it frequently so that the lines of communication remain open.

The Problem: Prescription drugs are readily available and easily accessible. Most teenagers steal prescription medications from their parent’s medicine cabinet or from a friend or relative’s home. Prescription drugs are also easy to obtain from friends or on the Internet. More than half of teens say prescription pain relievers are “available everywhere,” according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

What Parents Can Do: To avoid becoming an accidental drug dealer, lock your medicine cabinet or place medications in a lockbox, and properly dispose of any medication that is no longer needed. The Drug Enforcement Administration hosts regular Prescription Drug Take-Back Days to simplify medication disposal. Because your home is not the only potential source of prescription drugs, talk to your child’s friends, their parents and any relatives your child visits frequently about protecting your child from the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

The Problem: Many parents buy into the myth that only troubled kids use drugs, yet studies have shown that brainy teens are more likely to experiment with drugs than other children. The prescription drug epidemic has changed the face of the average drug user. Anyone, of any age, gender, race or walk of life, can get hooked on prescription drugs.

What Parents Can Do: Even if you’ve been blessed with one of the “good kids” who brings home good grades, has close friends and participates in extracurricular activities, they may be hiding a prescription drug habit that could change the course of their life. Stay alert to the signs of drug abuse and address any issues at the first sign of trouble, even if your child is doing everything else right.

Today, 2,500 youth will try prescription drugs for the first time. Will yours be one of them?

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of high-quality addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Sexual Recovery Institute, and The Recovery Place in Florida.