For decades, drug abuse among teenagers has been a widespread and persistent problem in America. While teen drug abuse is by no means a new phenomenon, the methods and substances that today’s teenagers are using to get high are giving rise to new and dangerous trends.
Among these are the illicit use of prescription and over-the-counter medications like painkillers, stimulants and depressants. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America reports some alarming statistics concerning these medications, including:
• One in five teens has tried Vicodin, a narcotic pain-reliever, to get high.
• One in ten teens has used stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall to get high.
• One in eleven teens has admitted to getting high on cough medicine.
The problem is due in large part to the easy accessibility of these drugs to teenagers. Many painkillers like Percocet or depressants like Xanax can be found in a parent’s medicine cabinet. Teens are even reporting that they can easily “fake” symptoms of ADD to family doctors to obtain a prescription for stimulants like Ritalin.
However, for the teenager looking to get a hold of prescription drugs, they need look no further than the World Wide Web. Not only does the Internet offer teens loads of information about how to get and abuse prescription drugs; simply entering “Xanax no prescription” into a Google search will deliver a multitude of web sites selling prescription drugs with no need for a prescription to any buyer. The drugs are then delivered to your home in an unmarked package. Whatever the method, teenagers are turning to these drugs under the misconception that they are a safer alternative to street drugs.
A survey by the Partnership for a Drug Free America found that 2 in 5 teens agree that prescription medications, even if they are not prescribed by a doctor, are “much safer” to use than illegal drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth and the careless manner in which teens are abusing these drugs is leaving a trail of addiction and death in America’s high schools and universities.
Prescription painkillers are popular with teens because of the euphoric effects they produce. Some popular examples of prescription painkillers include drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, Roxicodone and Oxycontin. Slang names for these drugs include “Vics,” “Percs,” “Roxies,” “Berries,” “Oxy” and “O.C.” They are used to treat moderate to severe pain and are a staple of most American medicine cabinets.
A sprained ankle or pulled wisdom tooth can also land a teenager with a prescription for drugs like Vicodin. These drugs, which belong to a class known as opiate narcotics, are highly addictive, extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. After only a short period of use, the brain will begin to develop a tolerance to these drugs, and larger doses will be needed to achieve the same effects. Once tolerance has developed, the user will experience harrowing withdrawal symptoms if use is discontinued.
These symptoms include agitation, anxiety, tremors, muscle aches, hot and cold flashes, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Unfortunately, the high risk of dependency is not acknowledged by many teens until it is too late.
The Partnership for a Drug Free America survey found that 30% of teens do not believe that prescription painkillers are addictive. They may be under this false impression as many choose only to experiment with these drugs occasionally, using them as “party drugs.” Although the risk of dependency is lowered with occasional use, the practice is equally as dangerous. Taking a large dose of opiate painkillers when a tolerance has not been established can easily lead to overdose.
The risk is compounded when users tamper with the pills, crushing and snorting or injecting them to boost the rush of euphoria. Using prescription painkillers in this manner can cause shallow breathing, hypotension, circulatory collapse, respiratory arrest and death. The Center for Disease Control reports that prescription drug overdose is second only to motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Common signs that someone you know may be addicted to or abusing prescription painkillers include:
• Isolation from family/friends
• Mood swings
• Stealing, lying or dishonest behavior
• Extreme sleepiness or tendency to “nod out”
• Constant itching, rash or hives
• Nausea and vomiting
• Difficulty remaining focused
• Presence of withdrawal symptoms associated with discontinued use
Another class of drugs popular among teens is stimulants. Stimulants are used to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD/ADD), obesity and narcolepsy. They may cause alertness, excitation, euphoria, increased blood pressure, increased pulse, insomnia and loss of appetite. Medications like Ritalin, Dexedrine and Adderall are often prescribed to children and teenagers who suffer from ADHD/ADD, a disorder that affects one’s ability to focus or concentrate, resulting in difficulty completing tasks like schoolwork.
While these medications have proven to be successful in treating ADHD/ADD, there are many teens that do not suffer from these ailments that choose to abuse these drugs to boost their academic performance or simply to get high. It is not difficult for a teenager to obtain these medications from a doctor, despite the fact that they may not be necessary, as ADHD/ADD symptoms can easily be imitated. The tendency of doctors to loosely prescribe these medications has created a huge supply in schools, making it easy for those without a prescription to buy them from their peers.
Teens are also abusing stimulant weight loss medications like Meridia and Phentermine (also known as “Phen”). These drugs suppress appetite and have been successful, when combined with diet and exercise, in treating obesity among teenagers and adults. However, they are some of the easiest drugs to obtain on the Internet, and teens looking for a quick way to drop pounds are becoming addicted. These medications cause increased energy and dependency is a likely outcome when the body adjusts to these effects. When describing an addiction to Phentermine, one college student reported feeling as though she “could not lift herself out of bed” without first taking a diet pill. Although withdrawal symptoms from stimulants are not as intense as those of opiate painkillers, it can take months for the body to readjust to its natural energy level following discontinued stimulant use.
In addition to increased energy, stimulant abuse is also known to cause extreme irritability, fear, paranoia, hostility and mood swings. Continual use will undoubtedly lead to tolerance, and anyone experimenting with stimulant medication outside of a doctor’s care is playing a deadly game. Common risks of taking large amounts of stimulants include agitation, dangerously high body temperature, irregular heartbeat, seizures, cardiovascular failure and death. Common slang names for stimulants include “speed,” “tweak” and “uppers.”
On the other hand, many teens choose to abuse prescription depressants for their relaxing effects. These drugs include anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin and Librium, which are members of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, or “benzos.” Although benzos are not typically prescribed to teenagers, there is a huge supply of these drugs in schools and on the street as they are the most widely available of all prescription medications. Doctors write over 50 million benzodiazepine prescriptions each year, making them even more common than prescription painkillers in American medicine cabinets. Benzos create a calm, sedated feeling similar to that of alcohol.
Common slang names for many benzodiazepines include “bars,” “ladders,” “yellow buses” and “downers.” They may induce slurred speech, disorientation, impaired memory and vivid or disturbing dreams. While some teens turn to benzos to ease the anxiety associated with many adolescent experiences, others use the drugs simply to get high. When used as “party drugs,” they are often combined with other substances, either to enhance the euphoric effects of narcotics or to counteract the effects of stimulants.
For example, many teens take benzos to “come down” from drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine or prescription stimulants. When combined with alcohol, benzos cause increased intoxication, meaning teens don’t have to drink as much alcohol to become inebriated. Mixing benzos with alcohol is extremely dangerous as it raises the occurrence of memory loss, “or blackouts,” and often leads to fatal overdose. Benzos may also be fatal when mixed with prescription pain medications and some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications.
When taken for a prolonged period of time, benzos are highly addictive. As an individual develops a tolerance to these drugs, they will take larger doses and experience withdrawal symptoms with discontinued use. Common withdrawal symptoms include heightened anxiety, panic, depression, mood swings, insomnia, obsessive thoughts, phobias, suicidal thoughts, nightmares, hallucinations, muscle tension, pain, shaking/tremors and nausea. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can also cause potentially fatal seizures and no one should abruptly discontinue use of these drugs without medical supervision.
Prescription drug abuse is a serious and growing problem. Studies show that, while abuse of street drugs like marijuana is actually decreasing among high school students, prescription drug abuse among teens is steadily on the rise. Many teens are now reporting that they began their drug use with prescription drugs, a recent departure from the long-standing reports of marijuana as the most popular “gateway” drug.
A study by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse reports that, between 1993 and 2005, prescription drug abuse among college students increased 343% for opiate painkillers like Percocet, 450% for depressants like Xanax, and 93% for stimulants like Ritalin. The study attributes prescription drug abuse among teenagers to factors including escape, boredom, maintaining friendships and romantic relationships, family life, academic competition, extracurricular competition and a desire to achieve the “ideal” physical appearance. Parents need to understand the dangers associated with these drugs and take the necessary steps, like locking up or taking regular inventory of prescriptions, to keep these medications out of their teenagers’ hands.
Parents should never share prescriptions with their teenagers and should educate themselves about any medications their children are prescribed. Keeping a watchful eye on Internet activity is also recommended, as many prescription drugs are only a click away for American teens. Most importantly, teenagers need to be made aware that taking prescription drugs to get high is every bit as dangerous as using street drugs and, when taken without a prescription, they are also every bit as illegal. These drugs have the same addictive properties as most street drugs and taking them outside of a physician’s care can quickly lead to a devastating addiction or death.
Alateen is part of AlAnon Family Groups. Alateen is a fellowship of young Al-Anon members, usually teenagers, whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. Alateen groups are sponsored by Al-Anon members who help the group to stay on track. Alateens come together to:
share experiences, strength, and hope with each other
learn effective ways to cope with problems
encourage one another
help each other understand the principles of the Al-Anon program
learn how to use the Twelve Steps and Alateen’s Twelve Traditions
Members and Professionals talk about Alateen
Where do Al-Anon Family Groups meet?
Local Al-Anon contact information and meeting schedules: Al-Anon Family Groups meet in most U.S. and Canadian communities. Community-based Al-Anon Information Services and Web sites can connect you to local Al-Anon groups in the U.S. and Canada. Or call 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday – Friday.
It’s easy to underestimate how early underage drinking starts — sometimes even in the preteen years — as well as the amount of alcohol teens drink and the risks involved. Still, underage drinking isn’t inevitable. You can encourage your teen to avoid alcohol by talking to him or her about the risks of underage drinking and the importance of making good decisions.
Why teens drink
Teens are particularly vulnerable to alcohol use. The physical changes of puberty might make your teen feel self-conscious and more likely to take risks — such as experiment with alcohol — to fit in or please others. Also, your teen might have trouble understanding that his or her actions can have adverse consequences. Common risk factors for underage drinking include:
Transitions, such as the move from middle school to high school or getting a driver’s license
Increased stress at home or school
Family problems, such as conflict or parental alcohol abuse
A history of behavior problems or mental health conditions
Consequences of underage drinking
Whatever causes a teen to drink, the consequences may be the same. For example, underage drinking can lead to:
Alcohol-related fatalities. Alcohol-related accidents are a leading cause of teen deaths. Teen drownings, suicides and murders also have been linked with alcohol use.
Sexual activity. Teens who drink tend to become sexually active earlier and have sex more often than do teens who don’t drink. Teens who drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex than are teens who don’t drink.
School problems. Teens who drink tend to have more academic and conduct problems than do teens who don’t drink. Also, drinking can lead to temporary or permanent suspension from sports and other extracurricular activities.
Alcoholism. People who begin drinking as young teens are more likely to develop alcohol dependence than are people who wait until they’re adults to drink.
Being a victim of violent crime. Alcohol-related crimes might include rape, assault and robbery.
In addition, research shows that alcohol use may permanently distort a teen’s emotional and intellectual development. —-Mayo Clinic staff.