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Message In a Bottle

Sounding the alarm on youth prescription drug abuse

By Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed.

Every day, in the United States, an average of two thousand teenagers illegally use prescription drugs for the first time, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It’s no wonder then that researchers from the University of Colorado, in evaluating data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), found that young people, ages 15 to 27, are driving an overall “epidemic” of prescription drug abuse.

In addition, The Partnership at notes that the same study revealed the total number of hydrocodone and oxycodone products prescribed legally in the U.S. increased more than fourfold, from about 40 million in 1991, to nearly 180 million in 2007.

Increased access to potent pain medication—as well as a host of other drugs for treatment of everything from attention deficits to anxiety – presents a clear and present danger to young people. For example, scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated problems with the stimulant drugs used to treat ADD drive nearly 3,100 people to emergency rooms each year.

As it turns out, attempts to contain access to such medications by young people through improper disposal are placing our environment and aquatic life in danger as well.

Good news can be found in an initiative underway at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania. In partnership with a host of like-minded organizations, Geisinger is seeking to address the impact of unused, overused or misused medications on the environment, human health and society.

John Jones, vice president of enterprise pharmacy at Geisinger, says, “This issue, in part, has evolved rapidly from growing concerns about impacts on human health and environmental consequences resulting from the more than 440 million prescription drugs disposed of each year.”

Building on a body of work at Geisinger focused on a pharmacist-based outpatient pain management program, the effort focuses on three key areas: in-house take back programs paired with survey and analysis of knowledge on safe disposal methods; public education; and program replication.

Similarly, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, offers a strategy of:

  1. Education (aimed at parents, youth and patients);
  2. Monitoring (of prescription writing);
  3. Proper medication disposal (convenient and environmentally responsible); and
  4. Enforcement (legal action to eliminate improper prescribing and production).

But what about the kids?

The 2012 Monitoring the Future Survey from the University of Michigan suggests that prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders.

For its part, the national SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions) warns young people about the dangers associated with such substances when used illegally or improperly. SADD President Penny Wells says, “Used appropriately, under a doctor’s supervision, prescription drugs can cure disease, alleviate pain, improve quality of life, and even save lives. Used incorrectly or abused, prescription and over-the-counter drugs can cause serious harm, even death.” SADD further encourages students and parents to be on the lookout for one or more signs that a teen may have a problem with these drugs, including: slow breathing, small pupils, confusion, being tired, nodding off, passing out, dizziness, weakness, apathy, clammy skin, nausea, vomiting, and seizures.

The shorthand: if you see something, say something. Because there’s a message in a bottle, and it’s an alarming one.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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