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Local youth hearing more about prescription drug dangers

In shepherding youth through the minefield of stresses, peer pressure and temptations of the teen years, parents, teachers and drug abuse prevention advocates are paying more attention to the risks posed by the chemical compounds common to most every household.

The dangers of prescription pills, especially opioid painkillers, tranquilizers and stimulants, are getting increased emphasis in response to surveys showing more local youth are misusing medications. In the 2016 survey by the Southeastern Regional Action Council, 18.5 percent of 12th-graders reported ever having misused prescriptions.

But even more concerning, 11 percent of all the 3,299 seventh- through 12th-grade students who responded said they had taken pharmaceuticals not prescribed to them within the last month, up from 4 percent in the 2014 survey.

That rise, along with growing recognition about the connection of prescription drug abuse to the current epidemic of heroin and other highly addictive illegal opioids, has caused prevention education messages once primarily focused on alcohol, smoking, marijuana and other illicit drugs to share more of the spotlight with prescription drugs.

“Within the last year and a half, we’ve really ramped up our attention to this issue,” said Michele Devine, executive director of SERAC, which works on prevention programs in 20 area towns. “Kids are definitely experimenting. We’re not seeing a high level of use, but we are seeing use in our high schools.”

At Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, students walk down hallways decorated with posters warning about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. The posters were hung last month by Carolyn Wilson, health program coordinator for the Ledge Light Health District and leader of the Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.

“We’ve given a curriculum to health teachers in the middle and high schools to help them talk about this issue,” Wilson said. “We’ve been trying to arm teachers with materials. We’ve been seeing reductions in underage drinking and tobacco use that we’ve not been seeing in prescription drug abuse.”

Students at Fitch say there is a real need for their peers to hear more about why taking medications not prescribed to them is unsafe. Too many students, they said, harbor the misconception that because these are drugs given by a doctor and created in a pharmaceutical lab, taking someone else’s medicine is no big deal.

“A lot of it is that they’re easy to access and kids think it’s safe,” said Lauren Rusk, a junior at the school. “There are kids in the high school who take them when they’re stressed or need Adderall (a stimulant) to help them finish an assignment.”

Too many students and adults don’t understand the health and legal seriousness of misusing prescriptions, said Lisa Bragaw, pharmacist at Simply Pharmacy in Waterford.

“They think it’s safer because it’s legal, so they can justify it,” she said. “But it is a legal offense to take someone else’s medicine.”

At Fitch, students said most parents still are keeping their prescriptions within easy reach on kitchen shelves, in medicine cabinets or in purses, rather than in the secure, locked containers that doctors, pharmacists and prevention experts are recommending. And while they are noticing more messages about the dangers of prescription drugs, student Elani Powell and others believe not enough is being done.

“Every year they should go further in depth about the effects of these drugs,” said Powell, a junior. “The second half of freshman year is when we hear about drugs, alcohol and sex and it’s all really rushed and crushed together.”

Added classmate Haley Roderick: “They need to show us more about what they can do to your life,” including the effects on brain development and as a gateway to abuse of illicit drugs. Along with warnings about the dangers, students said, they also would benefit from learning more about the connection between mental health and drug abuse, so that students become more comfortable seeking help for psychological problems instead of trying to self-medicate.

“There is still a stigma, so some kids are afraid to talk about it,” Powell said.

Good kids, bad decisions

In addition to seeking relief from stress and anxiety, some students also are abusing prescription drugs recreationally. Police, students and those who work with youth said they haven’t seen any local evidence of the “pill parties” or “pharm parties” publicized as a youth trend in some national media outlets, where kids gather specifically to swap and take whatever prescriptions they can get their hands on. But local youth do sometimes bring pharmaceuticals to general social gatherings, students and others said, where they might mix the drugs with alcohol or marijuana.

“It’s a party, but not specifically a ‘pill party,’ where someone might bring something,” said Will Robinson, also a junior at Fitch.

Derek Robertson, investigating officer for Groton Town police, teaches Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) classes to fifth-graders at three town schools. Students, he said, often ask him questions about prescription drugs.

“They get confused, because they think they’re safe,” he said. “They ask me, ‘How come a doctor will give you drugs if they’re bad for you?’ I tell them that if it’s not your name on the bottle, taking them is abuse.”

He also urges parents to secure their prescription drugs and keep track of them.

“They need to be aware of what they have, so they know when something’s missing,” he said.

At Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School, health education teacher Patricia Cournoyer promotes the notion that students need to hear about the dangers of all kinds of drugs more than once through their adolescent and teen years.

“For a substance abuse message to be effective, it needs to be repeated,” she said. She also urges parents to be proactive in preventing abuse of their prescription drugs, getting in the habit of storing them in locked boxes even if they can’t imagine their straight-A child ever misusing them.

“It’s challenging to get parents to understand that even really good kids can make bad decisions,” she said.

Andre Toussaint of Colchester, whose son Gregory attends Saint Bernard School in Montville, said he does understand. After attending a program at the school to learn more about the opioid crisis, Toussaint said he and his wife are aware that they can’t assume their child is immune from temptation.

“We’re teaching him about drugs right now,” he said. “We did talk to him about the dangers of prescription drugs, and it did open his eyes.”

Under lock and key

At SERAC, Devine and her staff recently have been distributing 400 black medication storage cases with locks, as well as another type easier for senior citizens to use, to agencies throughout the region to give to households.

Erica Baumgartner, health teacher at Waterford High School, said too many parents are not keeping their prescriptions safe.

“Based on the conversations I hear, it’s still in the medicine cabinet or in mom’s purse. It’s not hidden,” she said. “If we educate parents about this, that’s half the battle.”

One of the key messages she emphasizes with students and parents is not to keep opioid prescriptions when they no longer are needed to quell pain after surgery or an injury.

“Once you’re no longer in pain, you should get rid of it,” she said.

Dr. Sudhir Kadian, medical director at the Shoreline Interventional Pain Center at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, said that because of the opioid epidemic, he is spending more time educating patients about the risk to themselves and others in their household — especially youth — of having opioids in the household.

“They should be in a locked box,” he said. “Kids may think these drugs are safe, but they are not safe. If they are taken inappropriately, they are one of the most dangerous drugs.”

Kadian was among a panel of speakers at last week’s opioid forum at Saint Bernard, sponsored by the group Community Speaks Out. Ken Edwards, board member of the group and inspector in the Chief State's Attorney's Office, began the presentation by emphasizing the connection between prescription abuse and getting addicted to heroin and other drugs.

“Four out of five addicts started their problem by taking a prescription drug,” he said.

Dr. William Horgan, associate chief of the emergency department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, was among speakers who urged the approximately 75 parents and students in the audience to make use of the prescription drop boxes at local police departments and senior centers to discard unused medications, especially opioids.

“Many of us have old prescription narcotics in our houses,” he said. “They should not be there, especially where our kids can get them or their friends can get them. Narcotic pain medications that are not being used should not be in the house. Throw them out.”

Wilson, the health program coordinator at Ledge Light Health District, said more people are using the drop boxes to get rid of their medications.

“We’re doing a lot of ‘Take It To the Box’ campaigns, and now we’re getting 40 pounds every two weeks in some of our boxes,” she said.

But even with greater awareness about the risks, youth still aren’t hearing enough about the dangers of prescription drugs, said Alicia Farrell, an Old Saybrook cognitive psychologist who has given recent presentations to parent groups in Stonington and other local communities.

“Parents need to start talking to their children about prescription drugs in the third grade, to start to normalize the conversation,” she said. “The fundamental message they need to give is that prescription drugs have a purpose, and when they’re used correctly they serve that purpose. But when they’re not they can become a danger, and can be addictive, and how that can change the chemistry in the brain.”

j.benson@theday.com 

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