Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Pay the Price

An epidemic of youth prescription drug use

Joshua Coleman on Unsplash
Source: Joshua Coleman on Unsplash

A haunting new short film produced by McCann Health in collaboration with the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) describes in detail – and with no shortage of graphic footage – the real-life implications of the misuse of prescription drugs by young people.

They are paying the price, as are their families.

What does that picture look like relative to other destructive behaviors? These statistics close out the film.

  • Drunk driving deaths in the US per day: 28
  • Suicide deaths in the US per day: 121
  • Rx drug abuse deaths in the US per day: 290

Sounds like a problem.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription drug misuse has become a large public health issue because it can lead to addiction and even overdose deaths. NIDA also points out that, for teenagers, the problem is only getting worse (NIDA, 2017).

  • After marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly misused substances by Americans age 14 and older.
  • Teens misuse prescription drugs for a number of reasons, such as to get high, to stop pain, or because they think it will help them with school work.
  • Many teens get prescription drugs they misuse from friends and relatives, sometimes without the person knowing.
  • Boys and girls tend to misuse some types of prescription drugs for different reasons. For example, boys are more likely to misuse prescription stimulants to get high, while girls tend to misuse them to stay alert or to lose weight.

Which brings us back to the main point of the film. According to Jeremy Perrott, Global Chief Creative Director at McCann Health, “Most adults don’t realize their prescription drugs were being left about the house in the open and unsecured, almost waiting to be abused” (Gianatasio, 2017).

In this sense, the protectors become the providers … and the kids may think the drugs are safe because a doctor has prescribed them.

NIDA speaks to that point, stating, “Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription in the first place. Every medication has some risk for harmful effects, sometimes serious ones. Doctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors, described below. When they are misused, they can be just as dangerous as drugs that are made illegally” (NIDA, 2017).

How might you know if a young person you care about is misusing prescription drugs? Some signs include slow breathing, small pupils, confusion, being tired, nodding off, passing out, dizziness, weakness, apathy, clammy skin, nausea, vomiting, and seizures (Wallace, 2013).

Of course, behavioral changes may also suggest something is amiss. Narconon says the changes in a young person’s life may include the following.

  • Giving up on interests and hobbies
  • Crying for little or no reason and being routinely irritable
  • Significant drop in quality of schoolwork and grades
  • Withdrawing from family and friends and wanting to spend a lot of time alone
  • Being hostile, angry and aggressive toward anyone who tries to control one’s actions
  • Disrupted sleep patterns: staying up all night or for days at a time and sleeping during the day
  • Lack of care for appearance and cleanliness
  • Disregard for family rules or curfew

The point? If you see something, say something.

Like other drugs, prescription ones can be “gateways” to other drug use and, in perhaps the scariest of circumstances, may be used in combination.

In an article published by TeenLife Media (TLM), I recounted the story of a young man who became an addict at a young age, beginning with marijuana in fifth grade and alcohol by seventh grade. He shared with me, “I personally know five people who have passed away from heroin addictions. To make it through high school with friends, we basically had to take on a drug addiction of some sort, whether it was eating pills, getting wasted drunk, smoking weed, eating acid, mushrooms, ‘Molly’ (MDMA) or whatever. It was easier to make friends when we were both getting inebriated. There were exceptions, but the vast majority played into it” (Wallace, 2018).

Indeed, he is not alone.

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids offers, “Medicine abuse is a national epidemic. More Americans are abusing prescription medicine than ever, and like other types of drug use, problematic behavior often begins during the teen and young adult years.” And they offer up three telling statistics (Partnership, 2018).

  • Nearly 80 percent of people who inject heroin start by abusing Rx drugs.
  • One in four teens reports having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime.
  • Two-thirds (66 percent) of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family and acquaintances.

In another case in point, the TLM article cited a January 2016 story from the New Canaanite website discussing the circumstances of a former captain of the New Canaan High School cheerleading squad, Kera Townshend, who spoke on a panel about heroin, opioid and drug abuse. “First, she told of her many accomplishments, sure to impress admissions officers, job interviewers or any audience.

“Then she gave ... the seamy underside: Anxiety and, in some areas, lack of self-confidence and wanting to get along led her into some sordid drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. Addictions which stuck even after she thought she’d conquered them” (Wallace, 2018).

A “cross-community” coalition addressing addiction was formed following the deaths of several New Canaan youth.

More of such coalitions are needed so that young people can benefit not only from knowledge about the tragedies of others but also from critical efforts to educate them about the risks associated with illicit drug use of any type.

The Institute for Behavior and Health (IBH), another CARE collaborator, states, “One of the most significant factors in the decision by youth to use or not to use drugs is their perception of the harm that could come from using drugs” (IBH, 2018). IBH advocates a zero-tolerance policy for today’s young people. Referring to its “One Choice” initiative, Dr. Robert DuPont, president of IBH, says, “One Choice is a consistent, clear social messaging concept designed to encourage young people under 21 not to use any alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drugs to protect their health, especially the health of their brains” (DuPont, 2017).

In addition to securing prescription drugs in households, observation and education, other, and some might say more sophisticated, efforts to address addiction are underway.

For example, Curtis Hougland’s company, The Social Good, is pioneering a project that utilizes social media analytics to identify those needing help. He told me, "Young people live out their lives online. Increasingly, we are finding success in applying advance data science to analyze their digital life data – the vast number of expressions and behaviors occurring in between visits to clinics, doctors and experts. This rich, publicly available data allows us to model earlier identification and intervention models more effectively and predictively across mental health and substance misuse disorders. We have tremendous success using this approach in suicide prevention and intervention."

It is clear that misuse of prescription medications by youth represents a clear and present danger to families nationwide and ignorance or inaction comes with an extraordinary price tag.


American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2018). Suicide statistics. About Suicide. (23 Jan. 2018).

CARE. (2018). Pay The Price. Center for Adolescent Research and Education. (23 Jan. 2018).

CDC. (2017). Impaired driving: get the facts. Motor Vehicle Safety. June 16, 2017.… (23 Jan. 2018).

DuPont, R. (2017). For a healthy brain teens need to make “One Choice”. SafeLaunch. October 24, 2017. (23 Jan. 2018).

Gianatasio, D. (2017). This harrowing PSA tells the same story twice about a teenager’s very bad day. Adweek. December 13, 2017.… (23 Jan. 2018).

IBH. (2018). Combating illegal drug use: we can succeed. Institute for Behavior and Health. (23 Jan. 2018).

Narconon International. (2018). Signs and symptoms of prescription drug use.… (23 Jan. 2018).

NIDA. (2017). Prescription drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse Blog Team. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (23 Jan. 2018).

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2018). Medicine abuse: what’s happening & why. Medicine Abuse Project. (23 Jan. 2018).

Wallace, S. (2018). What every parent needs to know about teen addiction. TeenLife Media. January 20, 2018.… (23 Jan. 2018).

Wallace, S. (2013). Message in a bottle. Psychology Today. November 25, 2013.… (23 Jan. 2018).

White, S. (2013). Prescription drugs kill over 100,000 people each year, are you being medicated correctly? May 7, 2013. Collective Evolution.… (23 Jan. 2018).

More from Psychology Today

More from Stephen Gray Wallace

More from Psychology Today