The Office of National Drug Control Policy calls prescription drug abuse “the nation’s fastest growing drug problem.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic. The problem of prescription drug misuse and abuse is particularly alarming among young people.
After marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco, prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, are the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 years old and older. In fact, more teenagers are abusing prescription drugs such as depressants, opioids and antidepressants than cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined. Every day in the United States, an average of 2,000 teenagers use prescription drugs without a doctor’s guidance for the first time. Nearly 15 percent of high-school seniors reported that they have used a prescription drug for reasons other than prescribed in the past year.
One of the most significant (and preventable) causes of prescription drug misuse and abuse among youths is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the importance of proper use. Forty-one percent of teens believe that it is safer to get high using a prescription drug than it is with a drug such as marijuana or cocaine.
The risk factors for teens abusing prescription drugs are the same for abuse of any drug, but there are also factors specific to prescription drugs. One of the most relevant risk factors is simply being a teenager. Being young is a strong risk factor for prescription drug abuse.
Here are some other important risk factors:
- Peer pressure and social environment. Peer pressure is an important force in the lives of teens. Their need to fit in with peers to some extent meets their social needs, but they often go too far. Feeling pressure from peers to abuse prescription drugs or just being around peers misusing drugs can be strong risk factors.
- Perceived parent approval. A major risk factor for any kind of substance abuse in teens is a perception that their parents are fine with their actions. It is crucial that parents clearly communicate their disapproval of any substance abuse. Teens need to hear, out loud, that drug abuse is not acceptable.
- Access to prescriptions. Teens tend to abuse whatever substances are close at hand. If there are prescriptions around the house that could be abused, or if they are prescribed a medication, they are at a greater risk for drug abuse. Keep these medications locked up and oversee their administration to reduce access.
- Set rules about teen’s prescription medications. Let teens know that it’s not okay to share medications with others—or to take medications prescribed for others. Emphasize the importance of taking the prescribed dose of medication and talking with the doctor before making changes.
- Make sure teens are not ordering drugs online. Some websites sell counterfeit and dangerous drugs that may not require a prescription.
However, there are also factors that make a teen less likely to abuse prescriptions. Communication about drugs and alcohol is a big one. Teens whose parents talk to them about drug abuse are less likely to experiment with drugs. Talk to teens about prescriptions and make it clear that you expect them to resist the urge to abuse them, even in the face of peer pressure.
Parental monitoring is also important. Know where your teen is, with whom they are spending their time, and what they are doing. Generally, having a strong bond with your teen, being involved in his or her life and encouraging him or her to make good choices are all ways that you can influence choices about prescription drug abuse. The objective is to change the way teens view prescription drugs, ensuring that they know the value of proper use and the dangers of misuse and abuse.
As health communicators, we have a unique opportunity to educate teens about their health and the importance of proper prescription drug use in a way that is meaningful and memorable.
If you think your teen has risk factors for prescription drug abuse, you are probably concerned. The good news is that risk factors do not guarantee abuse. You have the power to change the course and to influence your teen. You can help him or her learn to make good choices and avoid taking the risk of engaging in prescription drug abuse.