Jeanne Blake


Opioids are killing our kids.

Surveys show that many young people think prescription medications, including opioid painkillers, are “safer” than street drugs – and they’re easier to get. No wonder these medications are being so widely abused.

Experts find that a key reason youth avoid experimentation
with drugs is the positive influence of parents. Open, honest conversations – early and often – can help keep our kids safe.

We all know families who say they had these conversations and still a child developed addiction. So while open communication is one vital step, another is taking quick action when there are signs of trouble.

In our library of Words Can Work® multimedia, we tell true stories of how young people navigate the public and mental health challenges they face growing up. In the process of producing these films and booklets, I’ve talked with thousands of young people and their families. I’ve observed a common reason many parents resist potentially lifesaving conversations and fail to take action: denial. That’s why, in our film Drugs: True Stories, listed in SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, we address denial head on.

Drugs: True Stories, a 25-minute video, features the story of Joel Levine of Peabody, Massachusetts.

Many would call Joel a typical teen. Growing up, he felt a lot  of pressure to do well in school. He was a good athlete and was driven to excel in sports, too. His dad was the school superintendent in a nearby town.

In seventh grade, Joel started using alcohol to cope. “By drinking alcohol,” he says, “I just didn’t care about all that stuff anymore.” But when the alcohol wore off, he felt the stress again.

Joel started smoking marijuana in middle school, too, and never felt he could get high enough. “I had to smoke four or five times a day,” he says. But the escape was always temporary.

One day, in 10th grade, someone offered Joel the powerful prescription painkiller, OxyContin. Soon he was taking the drug every day. Joel convinced himself he’d quit when he went to college. “Basically, I was in denial,” he says.

To pay for drugs, he sold his video games and jewelry, and stole money from his family.

Joel got moody and tired and his grades started to drop. He made up excuses for the changes in his grades and behavior, and his parents Susan and Herb Levine, believed him. “He’d always been a good kid,” Susan says. “So why wouldn’t I believe him? You do rationalize. You’re in denial.”

“Denial is wishing it away.” Herb says. “I remember discussions like, how could he be on drugs if he’s getting B’s and C’s in high school? Don’t those kids fail?”

After Joel left for college, he couldn’t afford to support a regular habit of OxyContin and went into withdrawal. “I’d be sitting on my bed with back cramps, leg cramps, cold sweats, nausea and diarrhea,” he says.

When he’d get some money, he’d buy a couple of pills. But once they were gone, Joel was in agony again. Many who are addicted to prescription opioids like Oxycontin or Percocet turn to the less expensive, equally deadly opioid – heroin. But Joel didn’t. By the end of the semester, he was flunking out. His parents were furious. Over the phone, he’d been saying everything was great.

Herb’s friend was the police captain in their hometown. He alerted Herb that Joel was headed for trouble. Joel admitted he was abusing drugs and agreed to go to detox. But soon after being released, he was getting high again – still claiming to be clean. His parents wanted to believe him, but they were terrified. Three kids Joel had known since preschool had overdosed and died. Joel’s parents warned that drugs could kill him, too.

Finally, Joel’s best friend Brian told Susan and Herb the truth. Brian knew he was risking his friendship with Joel. “I had to tell them about Joel’s drug problem in order to save his life,” Brian says. “If Joel got mad at me for it, so be it.”

Confronted by his parents, Joel agreed to go back to detox, followed by a 25-day residential treatment program at McLean Hospital.

This time was different. At first, the counselors weren’t sure Joel was serious about recovery. “They were recovering addicts,” Herb says. “They knew BS when they saw it. But Joel finally decided he really wanted to get well. With their help, he took the final leap he needed to get clean and sober.”

Now Joel continues his recovery with the support of his family and being part of a 12-step program.

When he was experimenting with alcohol and other drugs, Joel didn’t think he could get into trouble. “I got help and I’m OK now,” he says. “But it was hard. I always tell kids they can make better choices than I did. It’s up to them.”

Building trust with children through open, honest communication takes a consistent effort. Many parents, distracted by work – and their own day-to-day struggles – sidestep conversations about healthy decision-making. And, like Susan and Herb, many ignore warning signs.

The Levine’s wish they’d taken action faster when they saw signs of trouble. Instead, they accepted Joel’s explanations, no matter how absurd. “We always found an excuse,” Herb explains. “We didn’t want to keep having fights, so we shied away from confrontations. One of the worst mistakes we made is keeping it all in the shadows. We were embarrassed. We wanted to protect the family name. We should’ve worried about our kid rather than what other people thought.”

As a result, Joel faced no consequences for his behavior. “We should’ve taken away his car,” Herb says. “We should’ve checked his computer and looked under his mattress.”

Many parents stop short of these steps fearing a child’s accusations that they’re invading his or her privacy. In Words Can Work: When Talking About Drugs, a guide for young people and parents, Dr. Brian Johnson, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, says there’s a difference between privacy and secrecy. “Allowing privacy builds trust,” says Dr. Johnson. “Secrecy, on the other hand, means hiding. Kids who’re abusing drugs want to hide it. Parents who suspect their kids of using drugs need to check bedrooms, school bags and cell phones for harmful secrets their kids are trying to keep.”

Keeping kids safe is an ongoing process. Here are three tips to guide you:
1) Talk with your children, not at them
Ask open-ended questions and then listen. You can start with a general question such as, “What are you learning at school about drugs?” Then, be more specific with a question like, “What would you do if you felt pressure from a friend to use drugs?”

“By keeping conversations two-way, and by asking simple questions,” says Dr. Johnson, “you’re helping your children be more aware of their decision-making.”

Effective listening includes eye contact – not pretending to listen while looking at your smart phone or watching TV. You can show your interest by offering a nod or encouraging comment.

2) Tell the truth
Children don’t respond to scare tactics or just being told not to
do something. Dr. Kevin Hill, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of McLean Hospital’s Substance Abuse Consultation Service, finds that kids are smart enough to process sensible conversations about substances, along with nuances about those substances. “Open, frank conversations help them learn the truth about different drugs,” says Dr. Hill. “And more importantly, it shows kids that adults around them know these are important topics. This makes it more likely young people will feel comfortable coming to these adults when necessary.”

3) If you’re concerned, take action
When parents suspect a child is using substances, they must take it seriously. “That’s when you get a consultation with a substance abuse expert,” Dr. Hill says. “Usually when parents think an evaluation is necessary, it is.”

Dr. Hill will share his research on youth and substance abuse
as a guest expert in a two-day Words Can Work training in Boston on November 14, 15. The training, Engaging Youth in Preventing Opioid Addiction, featuring the DVD Drugs: True Stories, is designed for prevention and addiction specialists, school counselors and educators. “Attendees will learn the most recent research in substance use trends and how to detect the early signs of abuse,” says Dr. Hill.

Learn more at or by calling 978.282.1663. Jeanne Blake is a former television medical journalist and creator of Words Can Work. She’s an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction. She can be reached at