The Kids Aren’t All Right: Teenagers in the Opioid Epidemic

Executive Summary

Americans are abusing more illicit drugs every year. In 2013, roughly 24.6 million Americans used drugs in a single month, 48.8 percent of which were aged 12-20. The majority of new drug users start out with marijuana, but the next most common option is pain relievers. This should be a cause for alarm, as the United States is in the midst of one of the worst drug crises in its history, and it’s affecting our children. For parents, this is the stuff of nightmares: Finding out your teenager is addicted. And the only way to help a teen suffering from substance abuse disorder is immediate addiction treatment, which will give them the coping skills they need to protect themselves from becoming one of the epidemic’s casualties.


The Opioid Crisis

The roots of the opioid epidemic date back to at least the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies launched marketing campaigns touting the benefits of opioids. Doctors were pressured to prescribe painkillers, opioid sales skyrocketed, and distributors pocketed the profits. Within 10 years, lawsuits were brought against these companies, but the damage had been wreaked across the country. The worst-hit states were West Virginia (with an opioid fatality rate of 48.3/100,000 by 2016), Ohio (37.2), Pennsylvania (36.2), and Kentucky (32.0). Still, the suffering is nationwide, with overdoses in 2016 spiking at 63,600 – higher than all U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam War (58,000).


How It Affects You

Although the numbers above reflect a prevalent health hazard, many people are lucky enough not to have lost a loved one to opioids. Still, the risk is always there. Fentanyl was manufactured in the 1960s for palliative care in controlled doses, since it’s estimated to be around 25-50 times more potent than heroin. Yet it’s often cut with less powerful substances like cocaine or morphine, lending grim credence to one of its street names: “the pallbearer.” The recent deaths of Prince or Tom Petty (who are thought to have overdosed from pain medications with traces of fentanyl) demonstrate how the opioid epidemic affects everyone from celebrities to farming families to people who lost everything to addiction. You’re rolling the dice with your life every time you buy these drugs, which is chilling for parents with teenagers who are experimenting.


Teenagers in Rehab

According to Swift River, “America’s opioid epidemic has increased the need for quality addiction treatment and safe opioid detoxification,” as much for teenagers as for adults. The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration reported in 2014 that 25 million Americans ages 12 and up need substance abuse treatment, yet only 10 percent of them sought help. If you suspect your child is using drugs, take steps to identify the problem and reach a solution. First, confront them. Accusing them of doing drugs will drive them deeper into isolation, so treat them with respect, but also stay firm in your resolve to seek help. As the guardian of children under 17, you are able to send them to a recovery program without their consent. But this is a delicate line to toe, because you probably also know that forcing anyone into rehab almost never produces healthy results.

So probably the most effective measure you can take to prevent your children from doing drugs is to have an open conversation with them about substance abuse early on. Be careful, though: Overstating the dangers of the opioid epidemic may alarm them so much they disregard your warnings. Instead, teach them that addiction is not a personal defect but a physiological disease that can overwhelm anyone’s willpower. The hope is that, if your children struggle with addiction themselves, they will view their own helplessness with the same compassion they extend to others, and accept help from professionals who can guide them back onto the path to recovery.