Most Opioid Addictions Start In Teen Years: What you Need to Know

Most Opioid Addictions Start In Teen Years: What you Need to Know

Ninety Percent of All Drug Addictions Start in the Teens 

Ninety percent of all drug addictions start in the teens — and 75 percent of prescription opioid misuse begins when (mainly young) people get pills from friends, family or dealers — not doctors. Opioids are rarely the first drug people misuse.”

This is an incredibly important idea, and I want to credit Maia Szalavitz for having the courage to state it in her recently published article, “What Science Says to Do If Your Loved One Has an Opioid Addiction.” (As an aside: Szalavitz is the author of the recently published book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, which I hope you’ll consider adding to your reading list.)

This fact runs counter to the myth, commonly promulgated by many people who are opposed to prescribing opioids for pain, that addiction is a doctor-driven crisis. In fact, there are myriad factors that lead to addiction, and there’s no sound bite or simple statement that can explain it.

I understand the temptation to blame somebody for addiction. We all have friends and loved ones who, unfortunately, suffer (or have suffered) from the debilitating — and sometimes terminal — disease of addiction. It’s easier to blame a doctor who prescribed an opioid for that person than it is to look at all of the factors (including heredity and environment) that led to the addiction.

But easy answers aren’t helpful. Looking at only a piece of the puzzle won’t let us see the entire picture or effectively deal with the problem.

Solving the Opioid Crisis: Root Causes  

Solving the opioid crisis requires us to understand the root causes. It is not just about exposure. These are startling statistics.

  • Three-quarters of high school students have used addictive substances, including cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine
  • 46% of all high school students currently use addictive substances, and 12% meet the clinical criteria for addiction
  • 90% of Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18
  • 1 in 4 Americans who began using any addictive substance before age 18 are addicted, compared to 1 in 25 who started using at age 21 or older

As the Center on Addiction reports, “Teen substance use or addiction is the origin of the largest preventable and most costly public health problem in America today.” Its web site also provides these figures:

  • Immediate costs per year of teen use include an estimated $68 billion associated with underage drinking and $14.4 billion in substance-related juvenile justice programs each year
  • Total costs to federal, state and local governments of substance use, which usually has its roots in adolescence, are at least $468 billion per year—almost $1,500 for every person in America”

Teen Substance Use Is a Public Health Problem 

Parents aren’t the only ones who must understand the prevalence of drug use by teens. It is essential to educate the public about the fact that teen substance use is a public health problem.

Addiction is a complex brain disease that, in most cases, originates in adolescence. Our health systems must work to prevent or delay the onset of substance use through effective public health measures. Routine screenings should be conducted by health care providers to identify at-risk teens.

Once these teens are identified, health care providers must intervene to reduce risky use and provide appropriate treatment, if needed.

Teen Drug Use Isn’t Inevitable

And parents, please know that it isn’t the “bad kids” who use drugs. It isn’t “someone else’s” children.

Statistically speaking, it’s most teenagers — including ours — who get into trouble with drugs. Listen to them. Be there for them. Hug them. Get them help, if they need it.

Teenage drug use isn’t inevitable, and it’s not a rite of passage. It’s a mistake. Don’t let it be a fatal one.

Purchase my book The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon) or read a free excerpt here.

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD

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