Although the use of tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs among young people fell between 2002 and 2008, many teens now turn to prescription drugs not just to get their fix but, for some teens, to keep up with their stressful, hectic, pressure-filled lives.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), prescription drugs are misused more by youth than any illegal drugs, except marijuana. Unfortunately, the nonmedical use of medications prescribed to relieve pain and to treat such conditions as anxiety, depression, chronic insomnia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a problem many parents, educators and others have yet to fully appreciate.
"Prescription drugs found in home medicine cabinets across the country have become the new drug of choice among teens, and every teen is at risk," says Ray Bullman, executive vice president of the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE).
While some teens resort to alcohol or illegal drugs as an escape from their problems, the desire to feel good or get high isn't the main motivation for abusing prescription drugs. According to the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, dealing with pressures and managing school-related stress is cited as the top reason teens use prescription drugs. In fact, the prescription drugs frequently abused not only include ones that reduce stress and anxiety and elevate mood, but also include medications that stave off fatigue and sleepiness so a teen can stay awake for all-night study sessions and enhance concentration so she or he can have an academic or athletic edge.
Perhaps if parents, educators and other adults involved in teens' lives were more aware of the statistics for teen prescription medication abuse, the issue would have already received the attention the battles against underage drinking and teenage illegal drug abuse have. Consider these numbers:
- More than one in 10 teens--2.8 million--have abused prescription drugs in their lifetimes, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- One in three teens has claimed to know a peer who abuses prescription drugs, according to the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study
- One in three teens surveyed in the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study says there's "nothing wrong" with using someone else's prescription drugs "every once and a while"
- Each day, some 2,700 teens abuse a prescription drug for the first time, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- Eight out of 10 teens who misuse prescription drugs get the drugs from friends or relatives through such means as stealing, buying from peers or street dealers or simply asking for the drugs, according to the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study
Such blasé attitudes about taking FDA-approved drugs prescribed to someone else shouldn't be terribly shocking. After all, the media is filled with advertisements for medications that seem to promise relief for all sorts of difficulties in a simple pill. Today's teens are growing up in a culture that not only applauds pharmaceutical progress in combating many illnesses that once had little or no treatment options but more so that has seen prescription medication use become commonplace. According to Health, United States, 2008, a government report, nearly half of all people age18 and older had used at least one prescription drug in the month prior to being surveyed. Considering that this survey was conducted between 2001 and 2004, it's not inconceivable that the percentage has risen in the five ensuing years.
Another contributing factor could be the illusion that prescription medications are much safer than illegal drugs. After all, they've been thoroughly tested by researchers and then reviewed and approved by the FDA. That FDA approval, in the minds of some young people, might be a gold stamp that a prescription drug is safe for any and all people to take.
And don't underestimate the impact on teens' views that the phenomenon of ADHD has had. With the rise of Ritalin and similar drugs given to hordes of children who have difficulties concentrating and controlling their impulses, many young people have witnessed first-hand the power of the pill in their own classrooms among their own peers--or experienced it themselves. Add to that experience the number of celebrities, athletes and other high-profile personalities who've admitted to abusing prescription drugs but who receive lenient sentences, and the groundwork for teen prescription drug abuse being "no biggie" is laid.
Fortunately, not everyone has been blind to this situation. Over the past two years, national agencies and local organizations have sought to better educate teens about the dangers they could face taking a prescription medication not prescribed to them, as well as to alert parents, school officials and other interested parties about the lengths some young people are going to so they can deal with life and all its pressures and perceived expectations. Their efforts are working: The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that about 2.5 percent of the population had abused prescription drugs in the past month in 2008, down from 2.8 percent in 2007.
To build momentum in this fight to safeguard young people, NCPIE and SAMHSA have teamed up with representatives from 15 nationally recognized prevention, health professional and child advocacy organizations to launch a program aimed not so much at teens but at adults who have influence over youth.
"While the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows recent, significant declines in misuse of prescription drugs, we must maintain our focus and continue to drive the rates down even further," says Eric Broderick, D.D.S., M.P.H., SAMHSA's acting administrator.
Adds H. Westley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., CAS, FASAM, director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "These tools are essential for engaging youth and the adults who come in contact with them through a solid message that prescription misuse is dangerous and can be fatal."
The program, "Maximizing Your Role as a Teen Influencer," includes a workshop module to educate and equip "teen influencers"--parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, community- and school-based health care providers and others--with effective strategies to take action to help prevent it. Also part of the program is information about warning signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse and common myths about it, as well as brochures and promotional materials. This resource is available at www.talkaboutrx.org.
Once, a special "child-proof" cap was considered enough to keep young people away from prescription drugs. Now, education and awareness can go much further to safeguard youths and resolve a problem.