Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series produced by the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. The entire series will be published online at www.sherwoodvoice.com. Next: Some schools monitor students to be ready to help.
FORT SMITH — Adolescent abuse of prescription drugs can have its roots in the culture within which the child lives, experts say.
According to the annual Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Survey conducted last fall, factors that place a child at risk for substance abuse can be found in the child’s community, family, school and peer group. The annual survey targets children in grades six, eight, 10 and 12, asking 241 questions about their use and attitudes about drugs and other substances.
"What do you say when they say, ‘The first time I smoked marijuana was with my parents’?" Van Buren High School counselor Renee Henson said about counseling teen substance abusers.
Favorable parental attitudes toward drug use, a family history of high-risk behavior, and a family with an environment of conflict can make it more likely a child will turn to drugs, according to the survey, conducted by the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention.
Henson said people seek out prescriptions for whatever ails them — a back injury, having a tooth pulled — perhaps seeing multiple doctors. The result is a cornucopia of prescription medications in people’s homes, she said.
"If you think about it, adults do it, and we set the example for them. If you have a problem, you go get a prescription," Henson said.
In 2008 at 17.5 prescriptions filled per person, Arkansas ranked No. 2 overall in prescribed drugs. It was No. 3 in prescriptions filled for children, according to Prescription Drug Abuse by Arkansas Youth, presented in March.
In 2009, the state ranked No. 5 nationally in overall prescriptions — 16.7 prescriptions per person — and was still at No. 3 for prescriptions for youth, according to the report.
In 2010, Arkansas ranked No. 7 nationally in overall prescriptions — 15.3 per person — and dropped to No. 7 in numbers of prescriptions filled for youths, the report states.
Prescription drug abuse is right up there with marijuana, alcohol, K2 and other illegal drugs, said Diane Bynum, program director for Horizon, an adolescent treatment center at Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center. Horizon, which operates statewide, provides both mental health and substance abuse treatment.
In the past, Bynum most commonly saw pain medications such as hydrocodone being misused, but increasingly, the substance of choice is benzodiazipines — a group of sedatives — and adolescents often mix them with alcohol, which can be deadly.
"Most of the time when we see overdoses and death, it’s that combo," Bynum said.
Van Buren High School Principal Eddie Tipton noted that although prescription drug abuse can start with preteens, not many children that age can get prescription drugs entirely on their own. Ultimately, adults are the source of the drugs, he said.
"There is not one kid who can go out and get a prescription on his or her own. To me, that’s the worst part of all this," Tipton said.
Prescription drugs are easily available in homes and in the homes of relatives, Bynum said. Most people do not count the medications they have on-hand, so they are unaware if some goes missing, she said.
According to a National Institute of Health National Institute on Drug Abuse report, increasing availability is a major factor in prescription drug abuse. For example, in 2010, 7 million people are estimated to have used drugs that target the central nervous system for non-medical reasons. The most commonly abused of those drugs are pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives.
Among adolescents, one in 12 high school seniors reported using hydrocodone, and one in 20 reported abusing oxycodone. According to the National Institute report, when asked how they got the drugs, 70 percent said they got them from a friend or relative.