When people think of a “drug addict,” “junkie,” “pill head” of other stereotypical labels for an addicted individual, they create a picture in their minds of a homeless man or woman, skinny and malnourished while begging for money. What very few people understand is that a drug addict can come in the form of a 14-year-old child, still with an underdeveloped brain, attending middle school daily and barely making it through puberty. Or, it can affect a 16-year-old star football player in his high school who is battling a much bigger demon than the rival team he must play next Friday night. It appears this drug epidemic is touching the lives of younger individuals as each year passes. According to CNN, the rate of teen drug overdose deaths increased .6 percent in one year. This study was done on teenagers ages 15 to 19 years old. This increase can primarily be attributed to opiates – either prescription or illicit.
It isn’t unheard of for children as young as 12 or 13 years of age to be prescribed painkillers after an injury, from a car accident or playing sports. In many cases, it is common for doctors to prescribe powerful prescription opiates to young teenagers for a range of reasons, from sports-related injuries to dental surgery recovery. In some cases, teenagers develop a habit from these medications. While prescription opiates can be legally prescribed by a doctor, the effect they have on the brain is like the effect of illegal drugs like heroin. Without knowing it, someone who was originally taking prescription medication for an injury can become physically addicted to opiates. Sadly, this is how addiction starts for many people and opiate rehab is an option always on the horizon.
The opiate epidemic is now affecting every region of the country and despite what many may think, no one is immune. People from every socioeconomic background and path can end up dependent on opiates, often through a series of seemingly routine events. To illustrate the problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has compiled some jarring statistics. For example, according to a lengthy study, the number of prescription opiates given to patients in the United States has quadrupled from 1999 to the present day. Parallel to this trend, the number of prescription opiate-related deaths has also quadrupled in this same time frame.
And what about other opiates? Deaths related to heroin and synthetic opiates sold on the street, such as fentanyl, have also skyrocketed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths related to these drugs have increased six-fold from 2002 to 2015. It may seem unlikely that your neighbor, family member or schoolmate would use heroin. Unfortunately, many people turn to illegal drugs after becoming hooked on prescription opiates. Either their pill habit becomes too expensive, they get cut off from their prescription or they start to seek a stronger high. No matter the cause, heroin and use of other illicit opiates in increasing, with no sign of slowing down.
So, what do we do to combat this scary trend? There are a few different approaches. One is education. It is vital in this era that patients are aware of the risks of taking prescription opiate painkillers. Whether their need for these drugs is legitimate is between the patient and the doctor. However, it’s never a bad idea to be armed with information. Researching alternate pain management methods, such as non-narcotic drugs, holistic therapy, corrective surgery, or physical therapy, can offer a solution without the risk of addiction and the pain that comes with it.
In addition to educating young people (and all patients) on the potential risks of taking opiate painkillers, managing the risks for people already taking these drugs is another tactic on the war against opiate addiction. Harm-reduction methods, such as overdose reversal drugs, have helped save lives of people who have fallen victim to the opiate epidemic. Prescription drug monitoring is also an effective tool in waging the battle with opiate addiction. Across the nation, pharmacies now track prescriptions for controlled drugs like opiates to prevent over-prescribing and abuse and to flag doctors who use unethical prescribing practices. Shutting down “pill mills” or practices that give patients opiates when they don’t need them for a hefty fee has also helped to stem the tide of prescription drugs flooding American homes.
Ultimately, while measures are being rolled out daily to combat opiate addiction, addressing drug dependence is sometimes up to the individual. This is where opiate rehab becomes a consideration. Being aware of the dangers of these drugs is part of it. Understanding the warning signs and being ready and willing to seek help if you notice them can prevent many forms of tragedy because of opiate use. As the addiction epidemic rages on, reducing the stigma and accepting the reality of the impact of these drugs on the United States is more important than ever.