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Prescription drug abuse is on the rise among teens. Why? Because they're prescribed so much more.

Posted on 19 May | 0 comments
Photo by Tom Varco

A legal high – there is a way to get one and most likely the teen in your life knows exactly how to do it and where to get their supply. Their doctor. 

A recent study states that the supply is increasing.

Young adults and adolescents are being prescribed more medications to deal with “ailments” like insomnia and anxiety that have been shown to be best managed with diet, exercise and lifestyle choices. But we all have the option of taking a pill instead of making these life changes ... at least that’s what the ads say.

As a result the types of prescriptions (also known as controlled medications) that are most commonly abused by teens include stimulants, opioid, sleeping aids, and sedative or anxiety medications. All of these are available via a doctor’s prescription for pain, insomnia and anxiety.

A study published in the November 2010 issue of Pediatrics found that between 1994 and 2007 the rates for prescriptions of controlled medication doubled from 8.3 to 16.1 percent for teens 15 - 19 years old, and from 6.4 to 11.2 percent for young adults 20-29 years old. The increase was across the board and not influenced by age or gender. Prescriptions were available at multiple medical setting, emergency rooms, ambulatory office and for physical or non-physical (psychological) visits.

The researchers did not determine whether or not the increase of these types of prescriptions was necessary, but they related the increase of prescriptions to two factors:  advocacy for pain management and the media driven awareness of prescriptions meds.

The researchers in this study acknowledge that the increase in prescriptions is not necessarily responsible for abuse. But it does lead to greater availability of these meds. More prescriptions means more bottles of pills sitting in medicine cabinets.

Another research study published in 2009 found that opiates were being used for more than just pain relief. Sean Esteban McCabe, Ph.D., along with colleagues from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor conducted a survey of private school seniors in the United States from 2002 to 2006. Of the 12,441, 1 in 10 reported using opiates such as oxytocin for non-medical use – or in other words for recreation, relaxation, to feel good, get high, or just to have a good time with friends.

For many teens, controlled medications are easy way access to a ‘legal high.’ Why not? The most common controlled medications are sitting in their bathrooms and are often even prescribed to them. McCabe and colleagues found that many of the teens that reported they used opiates for non-medical purposes had a life long history of using these drugs for “pain relief”;  this included prescribed and non-prescribed access.

With the increase in prescriptions it’s important for physicians, families and guardians to monitor the well-being of the teens and youth who are taking these drugs. Used correctly opiates and anti-anxiety medications can help to treat severe physical and psychological pain for short periods of time. But in the wrong hands with the wrong intentions, the potential dangers of these prescriptions outweigh the benefits.

The important outcome of this research is that we are even more aware of the use and abuse of controlled medications among our youth. This is not just an issue of the desperate and rich, this now more than ever extends to our classrooms and homes. McCabe and colleagues suggest that we reconsider the use of these meds and advocate for improved monitoring that could lead to a reduction of the non-medical abuse of prescription opiates.

There can be a better way to deal with pain, in the case of using prescription medications there are times when their use is absolutely necessary for quality of life. But when these meds are being used to deal with the fundamental life struggles of anxiety, relating, and peace of mind, it is time to rethink this medical model.

- Makenna Berry

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