Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Drugs in the Medicine Cabinet

Last week the New England Association of School Superintendents met in Woodstock, Vermont for its annual conference. The theme was substance abuse prevention. Herb Levine, president of the association, and a former school superintendent in Massachusetts, invited me to present our nearly complete DVD, Drugs: True Stories.

Herb knew about the film because he and his family are featured in it. His 21-year-old son Joel began using alcohol and marijuana in 7th grade. By 10th grade Joel was addicted to the prescription painkiller, OxyContin®. Surveys show that nearly one in five (19 percent or 4.5 million) teens has tried prescription medication (pain relievers such as Vicodin® and OxyContin®; stimulants like Ritalin® and Adderall®) to get high.(Partnership for a Drug-Free America)

In the film Joel describes his addiction and how he kept using drugs, even after three guys he knew died from drug overdoses. Herb and his wife Susan, talk openly about how their denial and lack of knowledge kept them in the dark about Joel’s addiction.

During the 20-minute screening, the room was perfectly still. And no one left. Joel and Susan came to the meeting, too, and watched the film from the front row. My heart ached to see Susan cry through the film. She’s said many times that reliving Joel’s addiction brings up a lot of pain, but they hope telling their story saves lives.

When the film ended, Joel stood before the 100 superintendents and challenged them to teach kids about the consequences of drug use – something that’s often overlooked because of budget cuts and a focus on academic test scores. Joel’s drug education was limited to a program in 5th grade that showed the kids what drugs looked like. That did nothing, Joel said, but make him curious.

Mary A. Czajkowski, the superintendent from Agawam, Massachusetts stood to say that her community just lost a popular kid – a super athlete to a heroin overdose. Joel’s story was almost identical to his, she said. The only difference was that Joel was alive to tell his story.

Joel’s comments about his 5th grade drug education reminded me of Trevor, also profiled in Drugs: True Stories. Trevor, 19, avoided drugs and is committed to staying drug-free. “I don’t think it’s right to just tell someone to say no to drugs,” he says. “I think the person just has to think things through and use good judgment and think about what could really happen as a result of using drugs.”

In adolescents the part of their brain that helps them consider future consequences hasn’t developed yet. That’s why adults have to help kids think through what can happen as a result of their actions. Research shows that when parents talk with kids about drugs, these kids are less likely to experiment with them.

Dr. Brian Johnson, one of the experts in our booklet Words Can Work: When Talking About Alcohol remembers having these conversations with this own kids.

“The most effective thing parents can do is to ask smart questions,” he said, “and then listen. ‘If you were at a party, would you use drugs? Why or why not? Suppose you decide to use drugs. What could happen next?’”

This process of asking a few questions and letting kids problem-solve helps them consider what could happen. Parents can provide an opportunity – hopefully, with little tension – to think through situations before they come up.

The increase in prescription drug use by young people demands that parents 1) throw away unused prescription drugs and 2) tell their kids this: When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she has decided that the possible benefits of taking the medicine outweigh the risks. Some of the drugs that Joel abused are taken legally by people who need them to relieve pain. But there’s nothing safe about taking drugs that are prescribed for someone else. Using drugs in ways a doctor didn’t prescribe is dangerous.

Joel says that when he was in withdrawal from drugs, it felt as though he was at the gates of hell. He lived to tell about it. So many don’t.

Drugs: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Drugs

Related Issues and Answers columns
Cocaine and addiction
Cocaine’s effect on the body
Crystal meth
Prescription drugs

Related columns for young people


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