What’s Hidden in the Hallways: A Look Inside Teenage Opioid Use

Walking through the hallways of any high school in America, you will notice student cliques that have existed for generations. You will find your scholars, your athletes, your artists, your so-called “outcasts,” your musicians, your “popular” kids, and anyone and everyone else that falls in-between. Which group is more susceptible to having an addiction to opiates? The answer is – all of them. Addiction does not discriminate.

I have been a therapist working with adolescents dealing with mental health and addiction for seven years in both hospital and outpatient settings in the suburbs of D.C., and currently as the Coordinator of Adolescent Treatment Services at Realization Center in Manhattan. The demographics may change a little bit but the epidemic that our youth and their families are facing are the same regardless of geography. To put it simply, our youth are dying and their families are being blind-sided by the secretive world of opioid addiction.

As a nation, we have never dealt with an epidemic like this before. If we actually want to help the youth of today, we must accept the reality that all adults are intentionally excluded from knowing the inner lives of teens who both traffic or use drugs. For one, technology has made it possible to have access to both information and products at their fingertips. All of which can be protected with privacy settings so that parents, teachers, or any other outsider is not able to retrieve any information or detail about their daily lives. For example, it is a well-known practice to have fake online social media accounts, like a “Finsta,” which stands for “fake Instagram.” This is a profile which teens create to give to their parents so that they think they know what their child is doing and who they are spending their time with. Social media is anything but “private,” yet I find when working with parents and their teens that parents continue to provide and financially support their youth with smartphones of which they do not know the passcodes to. Why is that?

Social media and technology have absolutely taken access to substances to a new level, however, it is not the only reason this epidemic exists. Why are opiates, including heroin, killing our youth at such a rapid pace? As adults, I think we look for some complicated answer. Something that could truly explain why our youth who have such promise and with so many resources at their fingertips would sacrifice their lives before they truly even began to live it. But the answer may be quite simple; pills are not scary anymore. You can’t sleep? Take some Benadryl or ZZQuil. You have anxiety? Take a Xanax. You can’t focus in class or you need to study for an exam? Take an Adderall. We live in a world of, what I like to call, “Instant Pharmaceutical Gratification.” If there is an issue – there’s either an app or a pill for it. As a society we know this to be true. We are exposed to a vast number of commercials advertising prescriptions drugs as the cure for all of our ailments and encouraging us to “ask your doctor if ____ is right for you,” followed by a long list of horrifying side effects. So why should our youth be so terrified of medications that are prescribed for symptoms they experience when those same medications are advertised and commonly used amongst their parents, family members, and peers?

With the influence of technology and the normalization of prescription drug use contributing to the opioid addiction in our youth, what is the solution? How do we prevent our youth from dying? How do we support them as a society and intervene to save them and prevent the inevitable deaths that opioids afflict on families nationwide? Again, the answer may seem quite simple – treatment. But treatment is inconvenient, especially for teenagers. This would require them to go to a program after school, postponing their homework, extracurricular activities, or after school employment. This may require you, as their parent, to leave work early in order to attend treatment with them in addition to all the responsibilities you have. At the same time, you MUST remember that addiction is the only FATAL disease people spend their entire lives debating they have; regardless of age or how successful they are. So you cannot be surprised when your child tells you that they have it “under control” or they say “it’s my friend’s” or they tell you “I’ve only done it once” or they tell you its their friends “who really need help” and not them. Let us, as clinicians, help you – help your child to navigate themselves through this drug-induced world. The earlier and more intensely you intervene, the better the outcome could be. No treatment is convenient and the old school notion of a “rock bottom” no longer exists because this generation is dying far before that happens.

There is absolutely nothing worse than burying a child. This is something that a family does not recover from, especially when it could have been prevented. Having seen firsthand, families that I have worked with as a clinician or that I have personally grown up with who have lost their children to addiction, it is something that a family never heals from. The guilt for what they could have done and the blame that they accuse themselves of for what they all could of or should of have done is just something that not disintegrate over time. Yes, technology plays a role and yes, so does the normalization of the pharmaceutical industry. However, the most prohibiting aspect of treating this opioid epidemic is how we as a society view addiction in it of itself. It is the shame and the judgment that is afflicted upon on those who are addicted that truly kills. It is the judgment that is fatal for those who are suffering or those who are witnessing someone suffer to want to reach out for help. If you have any other mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, OCD, or a learning disability you are accommodated in our high schools. It is required by the state that you are to be provided with resources to support your needs within the classroom. The school may make accommodations for you and give you passes to excuse yourself from class if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or need extra time on tests. I am not saying that they should not do that, but I am saying where are the accommodations for the youth that abuse substances? Why do they get suspended or expelled, and referred to “alternative programs” for their symptoms? Our drug addicted youth are living in a “perfect storm” where they are exposed to all the technology, all the access to the most potent substances ever created, and yet are treated with the same ineffective and discriminatory approach as every generation before them despite the knowledge that we have. Schools would rather save their name and their credibility as an institution than your child.

All of these factors make treatment for adolescents hard for families to find. It is not only a challenge to find treatment with the quality of service needed, but also but the comprehensive approach necessary to address all of these aspects that our youth and families face need in order to recover in today’s world. At Realization Center in Manhattan and Brooklyn, we provide group therapy five times per week for adolescents. This is in addition to individual therapy, family therapy, and medication management. While providing these services to our youth and families, we also coordinate with schools, outpatient therapists and psychiatrists, and other community organizations that may be involved in your child’s care to provide the most comprehensive and collaborative approach to support your child and family so that you receive the education, support, and resources necessary to address your families’ individual needs. Yes, it may be time consuming and yes you may think that it is not necessarily needed, but believe us, it absolutely is.

Our society has preconceived notions regarding drug addiction in general, but especially when in regard to adolescents. It is irrelevant whether your child is enrolled in AP courses, has a high GPA, SAT or ACT score, whether they attend a public or private school, or reside in an urban, suburban, or rural area, your socio-economic status is irrelevant, or whether or not they are engaged in extracurricular activities. Opioid pills and heroin are everywhere. The only way to find out if a teen is doing drugs is very simple; involuntarily drug test them and believe the results as opposed to what your teenager tells you. It may be a difficult decision to make, but it will not be one that as a parent you will regret.

You can reach Maria Afordakos, MCH, by Email at:  A4@RealizationCenterNYC.com, or reach her by phone at (212) 627-9600, www.realizationcenternyc.com.

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