Krystle was a teen on the right path. She was earning straight A’s in high school and had a full ride scholarship to a local university. But then things changed. “I don’t really know how or why I decided to try drugs,” she says. “I thought it was just fun and games and that I wouldn’t get addicted.”
The drugs made Krystle, of Greeley, feel like she could do anything and forget about real life issues. Eventually, she ended up in an abusive relationship, survived multiple overdoses, went to rehab and is now clean — all before she turned 21.
Not all of Krystle’s drugs were illegal. Some were items commonly found in medicine cabinets in homes around the country. One of her overdoses was from a mix of high amounts of Ibuprofen with multiple prescriptions from a previous hospital stay — over-the-counter medications and doctor-written prescriptions.
A recent study by Rise Above Colorado, a new program to fight teen drug misuse and abuse, found that her story is not uncommon and a similar practice is on the rise among Colorado teens. The study found that 42 percent of Colorado teens say it’s easy to get drugs from their parent’s medicine cabinet, and 29.2 percent of high school seniors said they had taken a prescription medication that wasn’t for them at least once in their lifetime, which is higher than the national average of 25.6 percent.
The nonprofit, Rise Above Colorado, which was launched in January 2014 by the Colorado Meth Project in collaboration with The Partnership at Drugfree.org, is using digital media, community outreach programs and a Teen Advisory Council to educate teens and their parents about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
DANGERS IN THE MEDICINE CABINET
Which drugs pose a threat? It could be leftover pain medication from Dad’s broken ankle, ADHD medication for a sibling, a prescription from Grandma’s medicine cabinet or medication shared at a friend’s house. These prescription medications can also be obtained easily at school and on the streets. The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioid painkillers, antianxiety medications/sedatives and stimulants, due to their mind-altering properties.
The kids learn that they can get high by taking the medications, especially in high doses and in combination with other medications or alcohol. They swallow or snort them, which gives the full impact of a time-released drug all at once.
Kent MacLennan, executive director of Rise Above Colorado, points out that there is an impression that because the drugs are manufactured in a sterile laboratory, and not cooked up in someone’s basement, that the prescription medications are somehow safer. However, he emphasizes, that even drugs given in a medical environment have risks. “The substances impact the teenage brain and you don’t know how damaging that can be over a long period of time.” Another risky element of prescription drug abuse is that it is usually a solitary activity. Abusing prescription drugs is typically done alone and out of boredom, as well as to obtain the high. Often, the addicted teen’s friends don’t even know their friend is using.
TALK EARLY AND OFTEN
Studies show that 90 percent of substance addictions start in the teenage years. “The rate of addiction is dramatically higher when started in their teens versus their twenties,” says MacLennan. “We’re talking to teens and tweens, not waiting until high school. By then the ability to access these drugs is significantly higher and the curiosity is higher.”
MacLennan suggests parents lay the basis for talks about both illegal and prescription drug abuse when their children are very young. According to the Rise Above survey, kids are 50 percent less likely to use drugs if their parents have talked to them about it. “Talk about making healthy choices and taking care of your body. Then the conversation can get more specific as they get older,” he says. The Medicine Abuse Project at drugfree.org recommends that discussions with kids include the following:
In addition, parents need to safeguard the home and know the signs and symptoms of medicine abuse, which include: fatigue, red or glazed eyes, repeated health complaints, sudden mood changes, secretiveness and withdrawal from family, decreased or obsessive interest in school work, missing prescription medications and additional filled prescriptions you didn’t order.
THE POWER OF PEERS
The conversations also need to take place between peers. Seventeen-year-old Amanda Hill of Greeley, is one of Rise Above Colorado’s Teen Advisory Council members. When a friend said she was considering trying drugs, Hill asked her, “What are you expecting out of this? Is it going to help you, in the long run, achieve what you want to become?” As a peer, her words have power. According to the survey, 88 percent of Colorado teens would give friends a hard time for misusing prescription or over-the-counter medications.
“We want young people to think about how they can rise above the temptations and pressures of drugs and alcohol that may exist in their world,” says MacLennan. “There are so many things that we all can find enjoyment in in life and there are healthy alternatives that don’t involve drugs. Those are the things we want to focus on.”