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By Melissa Slager, Herald Writer
Thu Jun 7th, 2007 9:00pm
A Stanwood High School junior recalled the first time he abused prescription drugs.
“I took an antidepressant with a shot of vodka,” he said. “It felt the same as if I was drinking five beers – just dizziness and almost falling down, but without the feeling of throwing up you can get with five beers.”
He decided to take the drug, which wasn’t prescribed to him, because he was feeling down – and wanted to get high.
The boy, whom The Herald is not naming, is unapologetic for his drug habit. “It’s knowing you should stop but not wanting to,” he said.
From Stanwood to Mukilteo, Monroe to Everett, teenagers across Snohomish County are using more prescription drugs to get high.
Prescription drug abuse among teens is not new. It’s a national problem.
Area school districts and communities are only now beginning to get a handle on how widespread the problem is.
With no odor and often no overt signs of being under the influence, it’s a habit that’s easier for teens to hide – until they go too far.
Students have overdosed on prescription drugs at Snohomish Freshman Campus and Meadowdale Middle School in Lynnwood within the last five years.
The state earlier this year, for the first time, released statistics on the numbers of teens who reported abusing prescription painkillers.
In Snohomish County, 1 in 7 high school seniors who answered the survey reported taking a painkiller to get high during the month before the survey was taken.
Nationally and statewide, alcohol and marijuana remain at the top of the abuse list for teens, though it’s leveled off.
Experts point to the continuing rise in prescription drug abuse – a problem they fear is being overlooked by a pill-popping culture.
Parents should take notice, said Dr. Bill Dickinson, medical director of behavioral health services at Providence Everett Medical Center.
“These are kids who letter in sports, have talents. They’re your next-door neighbors,” he said. “Parents need to understand that it’s their kids – it’s always possible they can have a problem.”
Abuse is on the rise
Teenagers are the fastest-growing group of new abusers of prescription drugs.
Teens accounted for nearly 1 in 10 of new users in 2003, the latest study available from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York.
Washington ranked No. 1 for young peoples’ abuse of prescription pain relievers in a 2004 study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Locally, Snohomish County seniors were more likely to report drinking alcohol or smoking pot than taking a prescription painkiller to get high, according to their responses on the 2006 Healthy Youth Survey.
Still, the rate of prescription drug abuse is greater than those who took other illegal drugs, such as LSD or meth, combined.
The state study, released this spring, is considered a key indicator of teen habits and attitudes.
To get a better sense of kids’ knowledge and attitudes toward prescription drugs in their community, Monroe pulled together a group of school, police, youth, health and religious leaders.
East Youth Advocacy Network crafted a survey that was given earlier this spring to 1,400 students in Monroe’s middle and high schools.
Responses show most students know it’s wrong to abuse pills, but also that abuse is a sizeable problem.
The survey found most students – about 75 percent – believe taking prescription drugs not meant for them is wrong and dangerous.
Yet two-thirds know at least one person who abuses prescription drugs. And nearly a third were offered a prescription drug to get high at least once in the month before the survey.
Most students said they were first aware of prescription drug abuse as an issue as middle-schoolers.
A dangerous habit
Prescription drug abuse creates pernicious addictions. Many of the drugs linger in the body long after the effects wear off, increasing the danger.
A drug such as methadone lingers for two or three days, for example, said Ann Marie Gordon, laboratory manager at the Washington State Patrol toxicology lab in Seattle.
It’s not like aspirin, where you take one every four hours, she said. “You do that with methadone and you die.”
OxyContin is one of the more well-known drugs among teens.
The painkiller was the only substance to rise in instances of abuse among middle- and high-schoolers nationally on the 2006 Monitoring the Future survey.
In school hallways, one 80-milligram pill can go for $80 – as much as an iPod Shuffle.
The drug, like others, alters the brain’s chemical messengers that control survival mechanisms, such as eating, sleeping, mood, energy and sex drive.
“So here you are at a time in your life, a teenager, where you want to know about the adult world,” said Dr. Dickinson of Providence hospital. “You’re strong. You’re fast. And you find something that, ‘Hey, this makes me stronger, faster.’ It’s a lure.”
Teens don’t appreciate the dangers.
According to a 2006 survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 40 percent of teens said prescription medicines were “much safer” than illegal drugs, while more than a quarter thought painkillers aren’t addictive.
Doreen O’Connor-Nash, intervention specialist at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, recalls an incident four years ago.
Four freshmen sat at a cafeteria table over lunch. One pulled out a baggie, into which they each dropped a pill or two.
Tylenol with codeine. Heart medication. Viagra.
A little bit of whatever they had found in the medicine cabinets of their parents or swapped from friends.
“They were not very secretive about it,” she said.
Kids haven’t been that casual since, but the abuse persists, she said, judging from the students who come through her office for counseling.
Others report similar attitudes.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for a friend to give a classmate in pain a pill for relief, like Vicodin, said Lisa Westberg, a drug and alcohol counselor at Cascade High School in Everett.
“Just because she didn’t buy it from you doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong,” Westberg tells them.
Problem starts at home
The home medicine cabinet is where most teens find their fix.
Such ease of access is likely one reason more teens are abusing pills.
One girl, a Stanwood senior, abuses an anti-depressant called trazodone, which her doctor prescribes for her anxiety.
She also has a job and keeps decent grades – most wouldn’t suspect she has a problem.
She said she doesn’t take the pills at school because she said she wouldn’t be able to function.
“I get dizzy and kind of muscle relaxed. And I can’t walk whatsoever,” she said.
Instead of taking the normal dose, she waits and saves up several pills to take at a time. The method keeps her addiction under her parents’ radar by using up the medication in the expected time frame.
Others raid their parents’ prescriptions.
In a 2005 survey by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 62 percent of teens said they took drugs not prescribed to them because they were easy to obtain from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
Many parents seem unaware.
On the same survey, three out of five parents reported discussing illegal drugs such as marijuana “a lot” with their children, only a third of parents discussed the risks of using prescription medicines to get high.
“A lot of parents may feel, ‘Well, at least it’s not meth. It’s just a couple of pills,’ ” said Martha Dankers, a member of the East Youth Advocacy Network in Monroe. “They don’t understand the tremendous risk to kids.”
And despite classroom lessons, many teens don’t seem to know it either.
“Teens’ philosophy on drug abuse of pills is, ‘If two works, 12 will work better,'” said Wendy Bates, an intervention specialist for Stanwood and Granite Falls high schools. “They don’t view it as a limitation but, ‘How far can I go before I go too far?'”
Few get help
One Kamiak High School junior now celebrating six months of being drug-free started abusing prescription drugs at middle school.
A friend gave him a pill for attention-deficit disorder, Adderall, telling him it would help him study for their big test.
It also made him feel good.
He wanted more. Soon, he was hooked, paying as much as $20 for a single pill.
The habit led to trying other things to get a buzz – alcohol, OxyContin, the club-drug Ecstasy, marijuana, methadone.
When he came home drunk one night, his parents found one of the pills in his pocket.
It took 35 days at an inpatient rehab center in Burien to get him to this point.
“It’s been better – a lot better,” the boy said. “I’m quick-witted, smarter. You actually have a personality, and money. And good relationships with your family, which is good.”
But health workers say few teens get the help.
Fewer teenagers step up to get help overcoming any chemical dependency. And facilities that specialize in adolescent addictions also are harder to find.
The young patients who do end up in treatment centers paint a scary picture.
“We’re seeing kids come in who are heavily addicted to these medications and experiencing significant withdrawal symptoms,” said Eugene Brown, director of youth programs at Sundown M Ranch.
The Yakima treatment center treats about 500 teens each year for various addictions.
In the past two years, staff have noticed a rise in those coming in for dependency on prescription pain relievers, Brown said.
Treatment centers in the Puget Sound area report similar trends.
“Sometimes we have people who are really severely dependent and they’re only 15 or 16, bleeding and ulcers, in detox centers,” said Melissa Morgan, clinical supervisor for Focus Everett Substance Abuse Services.
“They’re involved in some pretty deadly stuff.”
Saving Generation Rx
Some place blame for the trend on the confusing landscape of a consumer society bombarded by name-brand drugs.
“What’s normal in America? It’s pretty normal to take pills,” said Steve Pitkin, drug and alcohol counselor at Lake Stevens High School.
“‘Do you have a Xanax?’ People ask for it like it’s aspirin,” he said of the prescription drug used to treat anxiety and depression. “There’s a whole cultural minimization and confusion about taking pills.”
In Monroe, community leaders are trying to change that.
Monroe Police Department’s Crime Prevention Council has launched a public awareness program, which tries to grab the attention of teens and their parents.
The “Pills Kill” campaign features the image of a teenage girl gazing out with a blank stare, a white pill resting on her tongue.
The image appears throughout the city on brochures, school posters, bus ads and on the movie theater’s big screens.
At the same time, pharmacists are being given cards developed by Valley General Hospital, reminding them not to over-prescribe medications and to discuss with parents the risks of leaving unused drugs in the medicine cabinet.
Education needs to keep up with the prevalence of prescription drugs.
For instance, one in five adults nationwide are prescribed painkillers, said Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher with the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Parents should either lock up or throw away medication they don’t use or need any more, he said.
Prescription drug abuse is “still thought of as a problem ‘out there,’ and people aren’t personalizing it and realizing it could happen in their home,” Banta-Green said. “It’s not going away.”
Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.