Generation RX: The Dangers of Teens and Prescription Medication Abuse

Viewers cannot turn on the television today without a story depicting pop icon Michael Jackson and his un-timely death.  It has brought to the forefront of everyone’s mind a reminder of the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. What parents may not realize is although overall teen drug use is down nationwide; prescription drug abuse is on the rise, as one of the fastest growing addictions amongst teenagers today.  Since 1992, the number of teenager’s ages 12 to 17 years old abusing controlled prescription drugs has tripled and  nearly one in five teens reported that they are able to get prescription drugs such as Vicodin or OxyContin  in one hour.   In fact, nearly all poison deaths in the country are attributed to prescription drugs.   In the last ten years, the number of teens going into treatment for addiction to prescription pain relievers has increased by more than 300 percent.  In fact, most of the clients I see today are struggling with prescription drug abuse, specifically pain medications. Although it is understood heroin is dangerous and that overdoses are common, what parents don’t understand is that narcotic painkillers mimic the same effects of heroin on their bodies and can be just as lethal.  Teens turning away from street drugs and moving towards prescription drugs is rampant and the myth that these drugs are safe because they are legal must be squashed or this trend will continue to grow.

One of the reasons for this trend toward prescription drug increase is that the state of the economy today is causing more teens to not only sell drugs to support their habit, but to also make money.  With the high un-employment rate, many of my clients and young adults are having a very difficult time finding work.  As a result, there is an influx of bored and broke teenagers and young adults on the streets. Dr. Charles Sophy, Medical Director of the LA County Department of children and Family Services says “In this time of economic stress on families and parents inability to cope, their children, especially adolescents, drift to their own devices.”  Boredom reeks havoc with today’s young adults and teenagers.

Another problem is adolescents and young adults are part of a generation that is used to instant gratification through video games, texts, cell phones, instant messaging, and other technology.  They want what they want and they want it now and are not willing to wait.   The pain they are trying to anesthetize coupled with their lack of impulse control makes the internet and access to controlled substances a viable option for any teen needing a fix.      Sophie agrees, “Adolescent substance abuse is a growing problem and having our adolescents so easily connected to technology, allows easy accessibility.”  With easy internet access, teenagers can buy all the drugs they could ever want with one press of a button.

Additionally, Doctor shopping contributes to the growing trend toward prescription drug seeking.  Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse reports over 40 percent of American Doctors don’t even inquire about their client’s previous prescription drug use or if they have an addiction, and over 30 percent don’t even gather a history of their patient’s previous medical records.  In fact, investigators are presently investigating the records of multiple Doctors who might have prescribed medications to Michael Jackson, which might have contributed to his death.  Joanne Barron, CADC, M.A. and National Outreach Director of Insight Treatment Program for adolescents says, “The availability of these drugs and the widespread use not only helps to make them available to teens, but promotes the false idea that they must not be that bad if doctors are prescribing them.”  The attitudes amongst teens is packed with all sorts of denial that if prescription painkillers are not considered street drugs, and since technically a doctor’s prescription is needed, they are thought to be okay.  “Once use is established, addressing the denial system by the adolescent and at times by the parents becomes a significant treatment focus. It’s not like I am smoking crack or shooting heroin, the pills were prescribed by a doctor…… mom takes them for back pain  is a rationalization as well as a symptom of the thought process that keeps the adolescent stuck in their abuse,” explains Stephen Mardell, a Marriage and Family therapist who works with Adolescents and their families.

The ease with which a teen can steal prescription drugs right from their parents or grandparents medicine cabinets also contributes to this growing trend. Pain killers are rapidly increasing in the adult population which models acceptability in their teen’s eyes. “While teens recognize certain type of drugs like heroin or cocaine as being dangerous, often they do not recognize the dangers associated with prescription drugs because of their legal status”, says Barron.   Many adults rely on sleep aids, pain medication, and anti-depressants, making these drugs easily accessible to teens wanting to numb out or fit in.     Barron explains, “Parental attitudes trickle down, so that the more adults use prescribed pain killers, the more accepted they become.” Teens report how easy it is to gain access to their parents prescribed medications or even from their friend’s parents.  Dr. David Lewis, MD and Medical Director of Visions Teen Treatment Program in Malibu, California reported on their blog parents should throw out outdated prescriptions and hide current ones, carefully monitoring the amounts.  He continues to say, “Dumping an intensely psychoactive drug into a teenager’s developing brain is like a chemistry experiment and the damage can be devastating.”  Another issue parent’s need to be aware of is pain medication  can be difficult to spot especially with adolescents as many of the symptoms associated with pain medication mimic other  developmentally “on-target” behaviors.   “Some of these behaviors include, defiance, mood swings, irritability, withdrawal from parents, are among many symptoms that could be missed and viewed as age appropriate,” says  Mardell.

Most teens feel immortal and immune to the destructive nature of drug addiction.  Some teens will experiment but many will become dependent and the earlier they start using, the more likely they are to develop a serious addiction.  Due to the rapid development of tolerance, there is a strong possibility that teens will progress to needing larger doses of medicine for the same effect which in turn increases the potential for overdoses and serious medical consequences.  These same teens will also have difficulties with their attempts to get clean and sober and will continue to relapse. Allen Cardoza, President of West Shield Adolescent Services and host of LA Talk radio’s Answers 4 the Family,  attributes the increase in addiction to prescription painkillers in teens to the three A’s: “accessibility, apathy, and acceptance.”  He says emphatically, “These three situations are a recipe for disaster for teens and adults alike because by the time anyone knows there is a problem, most are deep into their addiction both psychologically, as well as chemically.”

Getting high becomes an easy way to hide from uncomfortable feelings such as break-ups, un-popularity, school pressures, and all the other typical teenage woes.  Among 12 to 17 year olds, girls are more likely than boys to have abused prescription drugs such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, and stimulants in the past year. (SAMHSA,2006).  In fact, females will more often mix pain meds with alcohol for a stronger buzz without having to ingest more calories from more alcohol.  This dangerous combination is called a “Diet Cocktail” amongst the Generation RX club scene.  This plays right into today’s teenage girl’s struggles with eating disorders and their need to be a part of what society deems beautiful.  Tara Schroeter, a Marriage and Family Therapist, who facilitiates teen and young women’s groups says,  “Often young girls feel the need to fit in because of the pressures of society and what is considered beautiful, such as being thin.  Often that image is not even truly who they really are.”  Sophie agrees, “Often times these devices are influenced by peers and often times by anyone or anything that will make them feel accepted.”

An article in USA Today exposed another concern called “Pharm Parties.”  This consists of groups of teenagers getting together encouraging each other to take multiple doses of unknown pills. Some professionals who work in the addiction field believe these gatherings have been over exaggerated, however, I have seen numerous teenagers in my own practice reporting on similar events.  Regardless, the mixing of different prescription and illegal drugs can be deadly.  “For teens, the possible lethal affects of mixing alcohol or marijuana with these drugs, the addiction potential and the possibility of overdoes must be addressed,” says Barron.  She believes the community at large must become better educated about the growing trend in misuse of prescription drugs.

There are several warning signs to look for if parents believe their teenager is developing a dangerous addiction to prescription drugs.  They include:

  1. Signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, agitation, and mood swings.
  2. Low self esteem and an inability to express their feelings openly and honestly.
  3. Social isolation and not feeling like they fit in with their peers.
  4. Lethargy and difficulty sleeping.
  5. Difficulty getting along with authority figures.
  6. An overwhelming sense of responsibility and co-dependency towards others.
  7. Weight loss.

Communication between parents and teens is vital in combating prescription drug addiction.  Parents can take advantage of teachable moments to express the dangers of pain meds.  An example of a teachable moment could be while watching television programs such as “Intervention” or “Celebrity Rehab” which depicts the ravages of drug addiction and what drug addicts have to go through to get clean and sober.  It is often said in professional circles that addiction is a family disease; therefore, including parents in the treatment plan is absolutely necessary to help address family patterns that may cause stress, enable substance use, and damage the parent/child attachment. “My belief is that while the adolescent substance abuse is the overt reason for psychotherapy, family harmony and strong parent/child attachments are also primary therapeutic goals,” insists Mardell.

Other ways parents can prevent drug abuse include:

  1. Keep prescription drugs hidden and out of reach from teenagers.
  2. Adequate parental supervision by knowing who and where their teens are at all times.
  3. Controlling their teenager’s med regimen by monitoring the dosages and refills if they are on other prescription meds.
  4. Keeping teens busy with healthy extracurricular activities.
  5. Explaining the dangerous effects of mixing drugs with alcohol as well as the dangers of mixing prescription meds.
  6. Random drug testing.

The 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and health, Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2006.

CASA’s National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University 2009: national Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIV: Teens and Parents.

Teens and Prescription Drugs: An Analysis of Recent Trends on the Emerging Drug Threat: Office of national Drug Control Policy Executive Office of the President, February 2007.

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