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Rx drug abuse warrants substance abuse assessments for at-risk teens

“The public often thinks that nonmedical use of prescription drugs is driven by doctor shopping and drug dealers, but it isn’t,” says Carol J. Boyd, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. “It is driven by people with prescriptions who divert their pills to other people, who are usually friends or family members.”

It’s an apt statement, speaking from personal experience. When this writer was going through high school he received the horrifying news that his wisdom teeth would have to be removed. Following the procedure, gauze in place to keep from accidentally gnawing on swollen, stitched-up gums, I hazily remember being handed an assortment of prescriptions, one of which being for Vicodin.


Mother had other plans, however, and rescinded the Vicodin in the hopes that it would stave off any underlying addiction cravings that might’ve been passed on from my alcoholic (albeit, in recovery) father. However, this would precipitate the running out of Ibuprofen, also prescribed, pretty early on with no way to subdue the ensuing pain. Sitting in 0 Period AP Biology, hearing my complaints of feeling like a chipmunk whose acorn-harboring cheeks had been stomped in, a fellow classmate approached me and asked if I would like the rest of the higher-dose Ibuprofen he’d received for a leg he had broken only a couple weeks prior. It was very easy to say ’yes’, to which he produced a small ziploc baggy filled with white, oval-shaped pills.

This ready availability, as outlined in this article’s opening quote, is part of the reason why researchers such as Boyd are calling on prescribers to explore preemptive measures to help prevent teens from overstepping the fine line that demarcates ‘use’ from ‘abuse’. Collecting data in the form of surveys completed over the course of four years (’09-’12), and involving 2,700 middle- and high school students living in the Detroit area, Boyd and her colleagues revealed, among other things, that teens who were prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications were up to 12 times more likely to abuse those drugs illegally than teens who never receive a prescription.

According to Boyd, who was also the lead researcher:

“This is a wake-up call to the medical community as far as the risks involved in prescribing these medications to young people. When taken as prescribed, these drugs are effective and not dangerous. The problem is when adolescents use too many of them or mix them with other substances, especially alcohol.

“Prescribers and parents don’t realize the abuse potential. These drugs produce highly attractive sensations, and adolescents may start seeking the drugs after their prescriptions run out.”

The study, published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, goes on to note that many teens will obtain additional prescription meds often via friends or family members. Which is why Boyd et al. recommend that prescribers assign assessments to teens before writing up a scrip—by cutting off “suppliers” like a well-meaning AP Biology classmate, or at least weaning them out, less and less teens will have access to what has become a ready-made influx of euphoria-inducing meds.

I was lucky my friend offered only Ibuprofen, a non-narcotic anti-inflammatory med—as the study indicates, it could’ve been much worse.