Teen Prescription Drug Abuse Skyrockets

The Partnership at Drugfree.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating teen alcohol and drug addiction, has released a report that examined alcohol and drug abuse among young people and provided a closer look at the attitudes of adolescents and parents about a very important topic.

In order to compile accurate data, researchers participating in the 24th Annual Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) surveyed a representative sample of 3,884 teenagers and 817 parents of adolescents over four years starting in 2008. While much of what was discovered during this study was neither new nor unexpected, the trends with respect to prescription drug use and misuse were alarming.

One in four adolescents questioned in 2012 admitted that they had abused prescription drugs at least once, which represented a dramatic 33% increase in just four years. Abuse of anti-ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall was especially common, as about half of those who confessed to consuming prescription medications recklessly and without a prescription had taken one or more of these powerful stimulants at some point.

There are undoubtedly a multitude of causes that could be cited to help explain these appalling statistics, but it appears that a mind-boggling level of naiveté on the part of adolescents and parents alike is one of the main factors that is helping to fuel this unfortunate and dangerous drug-related epidemic.

Misconceptions by the numbers

The responses of teens and parents to the questions on the PATS survey make it clear that the misuse of prescription drugs is not being taken as seriously as other types of substance abuse, even though both groups are probably at least vaguely aware of some of the risks involved.

Here are some of the more disturbing statistics uncovered by researchers who participated in the PATS study.

  • 27% of adolescents believe it is safer to abuse prescription medications than to take illegal street drugs; 16 percent of parents believe the same
  • 33% of all teens think it is OK to take prescription medications that belong to others if they are being used to treat injury or illness
  • 20% of parents have given their kids drugs that were originally prescribed to other family members
  • 20% of all adolescents who have misused prescription drugs at some point in their lives first did so before the age of 14
  • 29% of teens and 30% of parents truly believe that ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall can improve the school performance of young people who have not actually been diagnoses with ADHD
  • 14% of teens report having conversations with their parents about the dangers of prescription drug abuse; the numbers are above 80% when the topic is alcohol or marijuana and 30% when it is cocaine
  • 56% of teens indicate that it either has been or would be easy to pilfer prescription medications from their parents’ medicine cabinets; 42% report having previously done so

The lack of awareness that many moms and dads have about the true nature of prescription drug abuse is clearly a major part of the problem. If kids are a bit naïve about these substances that is perhaps understandable, since much of their information is coming from their peers.

But parents have no excuse for their ignorance; if adults do not yet understand the dangers that prescription drugs represent, they obviously haven’t been paying  attention to what has been going on all around them. It is common knowledge — or at least it should be — that prescription medicines are highly addictive and can cause terrible side effects when used improperly. No one should be fooled into thinking they are less risky to consume than street drugs simply because they are available legally and are sometimes recommended by doctors.

Assessing the threat

Parents who fail to warn their kids about the hazards of these drugs and who do not take steps to control access to the meds that are in their home are contributing to the rise of youth prescription drug abuse and addiction just as surely as if they were indiscriminately handing out free samples of pharmaceuticals on street corners. The fact that moms and dads are so willing to talk with their children about other harmful and addictive substances but don’t seem to be overly concerned about prescription medications shows that the problem is based on faulty perception rather than on a lackadaisical attitude in general. Parents certainly want to protect their kids against the dangers that chemical intoxicants present, but they unfortunately are failing to do so because they don’t fully understand the threat.

Medical professionals, non-profit groups, political leaders and recovering prescription addicts could all make a positive impact if they were to throw their public support behind large-scale public relations campaigns designed to spread the word about the evils of prescription drug misuse and abuse. Education will not solve the problem of youth addiction all by itself; our experience with alcohol and popular illegal drugs like ecstasy and cocaine clearly reveals that. But if parents and kids who are willing to listen just had a better idea of what they were actually up against, current trends could perhaps be reversed and the problem of prescription drug abuse in adolescents might be prevented from running completely out of control.

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