With the seemingly ever-growing opioid crisis in the US, government agencies have continued to research vulnerable populations and potential causes. Through studying such data, certain demographics have had increased exposure to opioids in medical settings—for instance, white patients are more likely to be prescribed opioids than patients of other races, and manual laborers such as construction workers are most likely to use opioids. A new data analysis has shown that 21% of teens and 32% of young adults report being prescribed opiates sometime in the last 3 years. Of those who were prescribed opiates, 4% of teens and 9% of young adults report misusing opiates.
This high rate of prescription is worrying, as young people have been consistently shown to engage in more risky behavior than their older counterparts. Researchers hold various ideas of why teens and young people engage in risky behavior—impulsivity, exploration, hormonal changes, undeveloped brains, plain old rebellion—but regardless the cause, young people are more prone to tasking unnecessary risks and engaging in behavior they’ve been warned against.
But prescription doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction, right? Well, as you may remember from high school health class, prescription drug dependence typically begins with drug misuse. Misuse is characterized by using a substance against legal or medical advice—for instance, taking a drug more frequently or at higher doses than prescribed, continuing to take a drug after it is needed, or using someone else’s prescribed medication. Opiates are especially prone to cause physical and emotional dependence because of their interactions with neurotransmitters and neurological chemical reactions (such as the release of dopamine, which causes euphoria. An opioid user may initially enjoy the dopamine rush they get from taking opiates, but because they develop tolerance, they will need to take more of the drug to get the same effect. This cycle leads to compulsive drug use and severe physical withdrawal symptoms if the user attempts to quit cold turkey.
Young people who become dependent on a substance tend to struggle with dependence throughout the rest of their lifetime. This is especially true of opioid users, who are significantly more likely to develop dependence than cocaine and cannabis users. Furthermore, those dependent on cocaine and cannabis are able to stop using substances without medical treatment, while those dependent on opiates require intense, and often expensive, medical interventions to overcome their addictions.
Identifying opioid addiction, especially in its early stages, can be difficult for an outsider. In young adults and teens, opioid-induced mood swings, personality changes, and trouble-making might look a lot like typical growing pains and raging hormones. Furthermore, substance dependence often occurs alongside psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc., making it hard to distinguish if someone you know is withdrawing from social support systems because of a known psychiatric condition or a budding addiction.
If you suspect an adult friend or family member is dependent on opioids, you may need to wait for them to come to you first by maintaining a relationship with them or alerting someone closer to them of your suspicions. If you’re the parent of a teen you suspect is abusing opioids, you can take them to a doctor who can screen for drug use symptoms and refer your child to an appropriate specialist.
Supporting someone who is struggling with addiction can be difficult, scary, confusing, and everything in between—but thankfully many researchers, doctors, therapists, recovering addicts, and families of addicts are using the web to share the knowledge and advice they’ve collected to help you navigate it.
Boston Children's Hospital. (2019, November 8). High numbers of youth report using prescription opioids in the past year: Results from national survey on drug use and health for 2015-2016. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191108102843.htm
Hoffman, K. M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J. R., & Oliver, M. N. (2016). Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(16), 4296–4301. doi:10.1073/pnas.1516047113
“Is Someone You Love Using Opioids Illegally or Not as Prescribed?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 9 May 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/in-depth/how-to-tell-if-a-loved-one-is-abusing-opioids/art-20386038.
National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Drug Misuse: Psychosocial Interventions. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society; 2008. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 51.) 3, INTRODUCTION TO DRUG MISUSE. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53217/
New York University. (2019, October 30). Of all professions, construction workers most likely to use opioids and cocaine: Study points to need for programs to prevent drug-related harm among workers in risky industry. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191030082825.htm
NIDA. (2019, October 18). Step by Step Guides to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/step-by-step-guides-to-finding-treatment-drug-use-disorders on 2019, November 12
Romer, Dan. The Impulsive "Teen Brain" Isn't Based in Science. 31 Oct. 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/impulsive-teen-brain-not-based-science-180967027/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.