Just as millions of youth are headed back to school, a new 2007 study by the Partnership for a Drug Free America reports that 73% of teens stated that dealing with the pressures and stress of school was the number one reason for drug use. This is a shift from retailer research that indicated that teen's use of drugs was primarily to fit in or " be cool". Parents may not truly appreciate the amount of stress young people are under, and, in view of this new data, may falsely believe that if their teen hangs with a 'good crowd' they will be protected from drug use.
While there are many indicators, including the 2007 PATS Teens study, that overall drug use among teens is declining, prescription and over-the-counter abuse is rising. Too, many teens feel that abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicines is less harmful than street drugs, and the fact they are not illegal drugs, may make them feel safer. According to a 2005 PATS survey, the proportion of teens who thought there was great risk in trying prescription medicines that were not prescribed for them dropped from 48% in 2004 to 44% in 2005, while the number of teens receiving treatment for addiction to pain relievers increased. This begs the question of what role does increased use of both pain and anti-anxiety medications by adults play in increased abuse by teens? If youth model what their parents do, and if their parents use medications to reduce their stress, is this having a carry over effect?
Teens report that prescription medications are easy to get from family or friends, or via the phone or Internet. According to several studies, Vicodin and OxyContin are two of the most common pain medications being abused, and the abuse of Alprazolam, an anti-anxiety agent, is also increasing. The prevalence of abuse of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines is growing, and some surveys indicate that as many as one in ten teens are using cough medicines to get high (PATS, 2005). Alcohol, which remains the most commonly abused substance by youth, is often combined with prescription and over-the-counter medicine abuse and can yield serious and fatal consequences. Teens in our community report that mixing the two has become a common practice.
So, as our youth begin another school year, school officials, community coalitions, PTA's, law enforcement and health professionals must be aware of new trends and work to educate parents on the latest research. If, indeed, more youth are turning to drugs as a means to reduce stress, parents and community members alike may need to alter the messages they are delivering to young people.
Pharmacies can also help improve the safety of our young people through providing practical tips on how parents/grandparents can keep prescription medicines out of the hands of teens, tips on proper disposal of unused medicines and the tell tale signs to look for that might indicate prescription or over-the-counter medicine abuse.
Taken as a whole, the fact that overall substance abuse in teens is declining is a good sign. Additionally, the fact that the number one reason teens report using drugs is as a means to cope with stress, and the increase in the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicine, is not.
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