Abuse of prescription medication among teens prevalent, harmful despite origins

“I had taken a few Xanax, and my dad walked into my room, and I was just sitting there, half asleep, just blacked out,” a Carmel High School sophomore boy remembers. “He asked me if I was drunk, and I told him I was just tired, and I don’t remember anything after that.”

Alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug known better by its brand-name, Xanax, is one of many prescription drugs abused by teens today for recreational use. In a time where prescription medication is readily available and accessible to teens, the abuse of medications like opioids, depressants and stimulants for recreational purposes is not uncommon, despite potential negative health effects and legal ramifications.

“Most of the time, I usually just black out because my body can’t handle that much,” the same CHS sophomore continues, reflecting on his usage of a wide variety of prescription medications, like Xanax, Adderall, antidepressants and painkillers. “There was a time when I was taking pills every day. It starts with people giving me drugs, either from my family members or my friends. I know it’s not that hard to get a prescription.”

Oftentimes, prescription drug abuse begins with precisely that: a prescription. For high school students in particular, the prescription of pain medication for surgeries or sports injuries, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications for anxiety and depression, and stimulants to treat conditions like ADHD are especially common. Once the prescription is filled, teenagers are able to choose how they’ll use the drug.

“I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication called Ativan,” a CHS senior girl says. “You’re supposed to take them every day, but I don’t like medication, so I usually don’t take them. Then sometimes I take more than I’m supposed to. I get really tired and sleep for twelve hours, and when I wake up, I feel really out of it.”

Another CHS senior had surgery on his hand and was ultimately prescribed Ambien, a sedative; Norco, a painkiller; and Tramadol, another painkiller.

“I didn’t need all the medication they prescribed me,” the senior explains, “so I’d take them for fun sometimes. The painkillers just make you happy and relaxed, tingly and numb.”

After alcohol and marijuana, prescription medications are the most commonly abused drugs by young people ages 14 and older, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. Locally, the California Healthy Kids Survey reported that 22 percent of Carmel High School juniors had used or tried prescription painkillers in the 2014-15 school year.

The Foundation for a Drug Free World found that many use prescription drugs under the belief that they are safe because they were prescribed by a doctor; however, abusing prescription medication has a number of health risks associated with it.

The Health Risks

When prescribed by a doctor and taken as directed, prescription medications are safe. When abused, these medications can “affect the brain and body in ways very similar to illicit drugs,” according to NIDA.

In a study conducted by the Foundation for a Drug Free World, it was found that 45 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S. are caused by the abuse of prescription medications, which is more than the deaths caused by cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and amphetamines combined.

“People a lot of the time think that because it’s a prescription, it’s not harmful for you,” CHS Health teacher Leigh Cambra says, “and so what I try to remind everyone is that you don’t share drugs. You have no idea what the side effects are going to be.”

Side effects for commonly abused drugs can range from mood changes, headaches and dizziness from Vicodin to nausea, vomiting or fever from Adderall.

Former emergency medical technician and CUSD substitute Felicia Fisher explains that in the case where more advanced medical attention is needed, the most important thing to know is what the patient has taken.

“There was a girl several years ago who wasn’t truthful to the emergency room about what she had taken,” Fisher adds, “and so they gave her medication, and it conflicted with what she had taken, and it killed her. It raised her body temperature to 108 degrees, and it cooked her brain. If she had told the ER what she had taken, she would have lived.”

-Anna Gumberg