Prescription drug abuse by teenagers is on the rise and is a problem masked by perception and a cultural mindset.
Last week, Park Hill School Board members got a firsthand taste of the scope of the problem from a parent whose son is dealing with the issue. The parent whose son is being affected by prescription drug abuse spoke before the board last week. Board members were silenced by his story. Board members and administrators’ eyes grew and their lips curled as he begged them to address the problem before other students are harmed.
The parent, whose son dropped out of Park Hill High School, said he wasn’t at the meeting to ask board members for sympathy.
“It must start here and not at home. You can’t be hiding behind a school handbook with hard to read rules,” he told board members. “What about others that are quietly continuing to take this medicine? Do we want to arrest them? Or do we want to help them? Please… make this a big deal before it hurts another kid.”
The parent told board members that there are many more students at the school involved in taking prescription drugs. The drug his son was abusing is called Adderall and is prescribed to people with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder. He said his son was taking the drug to do better on homework and to be more focused during tests.
The parent said many of the other parents are involved as well.
Possessing or distributing prescription drugs that are not prescribed is a class A felony and can be punished with at least 10 years in prison. He said his son faced being charged with a felony; however Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd decided to put the youth through a diversion program. Zahnd said punishing a kid for being naïve could have devastating effects. He said there is a falsehood associated with prescription drugs that they are safe or not illegal
“I think a lot of teenagers who would never consider using marijuana or methamphetamine or other illegal drugs some how think prescription drugs are different,” he said. “The most difficult job of a prosecutor is separating the good people who have made a mistake from the hardened criminals and to treat those two groups separately, especially when dealing with young people.”
Tri County Mental Health Prevention and Wellness Manager Vicky Ward agrees with Zahnd and said the biggest danger of prescription drug abuse is the perception.
“The mis-user of them is not what we typically think of when we think of drug abusers,” she said. “We’ve got a culture of people who believe that it gives them that little bit of an edge and it becomes very acceptable even with overachievers and model students. Their peers don’t see it as a big deal.”
Ward said nationally, prescription drug abuse is starting to surpass marijuana use among teenagers. She said perception of harm, the availability of the drugs and how acceptable it is are the things looked at when determining how likely it is a drug will be abused. She said prescription drugs have all three aspects.
She said families at home share prescription drugs. Many times, economic situations can lead to the sharing of drugs because they are expensive.
“Our own behavior has really set our kids up for this,” she said. “Kids see this and they don’t understand that sharing prescription drugs is illegal and it’s unsafe.”
She said one of the dangers of abusing prescription drugs is that it can have a much different effect on those who the drugs are not prescribed for. She said many times teenagers with ADD or ADHD do not like taking the drug because the drugs act as a depressant. However, when taken by someone without ADD or ADHD it can act as a stimulant.
“There is this thought that they are safer than those other drugs because these are medicines,” she said.
Ward said it is the responsibility of society as a whole to become more educated about prescription drug abuse. She said people need to have better control over their medicine cabinet where teenagers often look for drugs.
“Someone could have had an aliment two years ago and the medicine is still in the medicine cabinet,” she said. “Nobody knows if there are 20 pills left or five pills left.”
She said doctors and pharmacists also need to do a better job of educating.
Ward said prevention is another key. She said parents, teachers and administrators need to watch for signs that teenagers are overloaded with responsibility.
“Our kids are challenged with so much and the expectations are so phenomenally high that we’ve got to start looking at these issues,” she said.
The parent who spoke before the Park Hill School Board believes now that his son has faced some serious consequences, others will hide the problem even further.
Ward disagrees and says a zero tolerance approach will deter others from continuing to use. She said again it starts with a cultural change.
“We’ve got to change the culture before we start changing the penalties,” she said.