Heroin? Not my kid

The opioid epidemic and its link to prescription pain medication

As opioid abuse and the deaths associated with it dominate the headlines, we are becoming all too aware of the crisis our state, and other parts of the country, are in.    

Many parents in my practice who have kids in recovery, or are active users or experimenting ask me, “How did my kid ever get exposed to heroin? I thought only serious junkies did heroin.”

Some kids begin experimenting with marijuana and slide into a network of friends that expose them to more options such as mushrooms, prescription stimulant medication, Molly or ecstasy and prescription pain medication. Some of these choices are easier than others to obtain, including medication found around the home.

Kids will tell you that many of their peers offer them stimulants such as Vyvanse, Ritalin or Adderall, which are prescribed to kids diagnosed with ADHD or other prescription medication used to treat anxiety and/or depression. But the biggest factor of heroin use among adolescent and early adults is access to prescription pain medication or opioids.

Research says prescription pain medication can be found in one out of every five homes. Parents and kids are prescribed pain medication for a variety of valid reasons—torn muscle, bad back, dental or orthodontist work or surgery.

Think about how many pain pills are in the reach of kids of all ages. And think about the nature of an adolescent — experimenting, risk-taking, rule-bending. This does not account for all kids, but for those who are prone to addictive behavior, high risk-taking due to mental or emotional health concerns or kids with excessively challenging home and social lives, this is of certain alarm.

Heroin has become a larger issue because heroin costs less and it takes less to achieve the same effect as pain pills. An average pain pill can be sold for $25-$30 on the street, making it a pricey habit.

In addition, because of the increased regulations on pain medication distribution, the supply of these drugs is limited. So once a kid or adult becomes addicted to pain pills, they look to maintain their high elsewhere. Given the easier access and cheaper option these two drugs provide, this is why we are seeing kids and young adults transition from prescription painkillers to heroin, and even fentanyl.

What can we do? First, recognize that drug addiction can happen to any family and any kid. The idea that “my kid will never do drugs, especially heroin” is no longer true. Kids and adults from all socioeconomic statuses are becoming victims to substance abuse, especially heroin.

Second, if you have pain pills in your house and are not using them, get rid of them. If you are using pain medications, make sure they are hidden and can’t easily be accessed by your kids. Third, unless your child absolutely needs a prescription pain medication, opt for a higher dosage of an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen. If you don’t need to expose them to opioids, do not.

Finally, have ongoing conversations with your child about substance use. The more kids know, the more they are able to make educated decisions about potential risk-taking. If we communicate with our children in a non-judgmental or non-critical way, they are more likely to come to us for suggestions, support and help when needed. 

Tracey Tucker is Executive Director of New Heights: Adventures for Teens and a licensed mental health counselor at Tradeport Counseling Associates in Portsmouth.

Categories: Raising Teens & Tweens