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OPINION: Half of Alaska youth don't think misuse of prescription meds is dangerous

November 10th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

There are some things we have come, for better or worse, to expect from children. There's the "terrible twos," for example, a well-recognized developmental period when many children discover the word "no." We also expect a certain amount of rebellion from teenagers, as well as a propensity toward loud music and hormone-infused activities.

But there's a lot we don't know, really, about the lives of the teens who will soon take the reins of society and guide us into the future. But a recent state survey sheds some light and dispels some myths about Alaska's teenagers with insight that is sobering.

Some of the news found in the preliminary analysis of the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey is promising. Fewer teens were drinking than in years past, and fewer were smoking, too. Ten years ago, nearly 40 percent of the teens surveyed had at least one drink in the past 30 days. Today, only 22.8 percent had. Similarly, 17.8 percent of students had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days in 2007. Today, that percentage was 10.9 percent.

But a good bit of the news wasn't as good. The percentage of students who had planned how they would attempt suicide during the past year now hovered at 20.7 percent, up from 14.2 percent a decade earlier. And 36 percent of those surveyed felt so sad or hopeless every day for at least two weeks that they had stopped doing usual activities.

If all that saddens you, there's more. On the heels of an announcement that the state is suing drugmaker Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, for its role in the current opioid crisis, there are indications from the state study that access to opioids is a grave danger to Alaskans of all ages.

Of the 1,343 teens surveyed, 7 percent — nearly 100 teenagers — said that within the past month they had misused prescription painkillers. And here's the real kicker — nearly half of the teens surveyed didn't think they were putting themselves at great harm by misusing prescription pain medicine.

Of course they don't think so. In many cases, these kids are popping pills either left around or given to them by their family and adult friends. A study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2015 said that most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers are given them for free by a friend or relative. Others had been prescribed the drugs by a doctor — the prescribing rates for prescription opioids among adolescents and young adults nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007.

Teens have always been prone to experimentation, but today, that experimentation can lead them easily into a trap; one that the adults around them are already experiencing. Of those who use opioids — pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others, or the drug heroin — 23 percent develop an addiction.

Prescription drugs are the new gateway drugs, and their use and sale have ballooned in the past two decades to the point where the country is flooded with the drugs. Most of those who go on to use heroin do so because it is cheaper than their prescription drugs.

Add to that the fact that we are a pill-popping society used to finding a quick remedy in pill form for everything from a cold to anxiety, and it's no wonder today's teenagers don't think prescription pills are dangerous, even if they aren't taking them as prescribed.

Unfortunately, many of these teens will suffer as a result. Overdose rates are on the rise, and the state has few resources to help those who become addicted. We are not keeping up with the pace of this epidemic with outreach and education programs, and even if we did, youth are not going to believe that the same pills that their parents take day in and day out are really that dangerous. No teenager has ever responded well to the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do refrain.

Alaska's teens are suffering. Too many of them are sad and experiencing depression. Too many of them don't have anywhere to turn. For some, the substance they turn to is deadly.

When I was a child, I could buy candied cigarettes, which proves that as humans, we are capable of doing incredibly stupid things, learning from them, and taking action to turn things around. It's time to see this opioid addiction issue as a symptom of our dependence on painkillers and prescription drugs, and recognize that if we don't stop, the next generation coming behind us will suffer profoundly.


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