Back-to-School: Take a stand against prescription drug abuse

By Parham Jaberi, MD, MPH

The deaths of iconic celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Heath Ledger focused the media spotlight on the dangers of prescription drug abuse.  Sadly, these deaths aren’t just Hollywood stories limited to the rich and famous. The destruction of young lives from prescription drug abuse is all too familiar to communities across the country, including here in Chesterfield County.

Did you know that more people die each year from overdoses of prescription drugs than from cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and methamphetamines combined?  In fact, prescription drug abuse contributes to more than 20,000 deaths each year in the United States.  Of particular concern is the recent increase of abuse among our teens.   In Chesterfield County, the rate of prescription drug abuse in teens is nearly double the national average. The past 30-day use of non-prescribed narcotics among twelfth graders in Chesterfield County is 5.6 percent versus 3.7 percent nationally, and for stimulants it’s an alarming 8.5 percent versus 3.6 percent nationally.

When authorized by a healthcare professional and taken as directed, prescription medications have proven benefits.  For individuals who have sustained an acute injury, or are fighting an incurable terminal illness, pain medications can make each day bearable.  For those with anxiety disorders or who are diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, appropriate medications can help them function optimally and achieve their potential.   

But as lives are destroyed, the dangers of these medications, when misused, cannot be ignored.  It is time for all of us – parents, law enforcement, educators, healthcare providers and community partners – to step up. We need to know the facts and share that information with our teens.  Our communities need to be involved.  Our healthcare providers need to coach.  Each of us is in a position to make a difference and potentially save a life in our own community, perhaps even in our own family.

The battle against prescription drug abuse starts at home.

Lock your meds. Two out of three teens report that they get their prescription medications from their own home or from a friend’s or relative’s home.  Substance Abuse Free Environment, Inc. (SAFE) and the Virginia Department of Health recently launched the “Lock Your Meds” campaign. This initiative urges adults to control access by keeping prescription drugs in a locked container or cabinet.  Visit SAFE’s website, www.chesterfieldsafe.org, to get more information about this effort.

Toss it!  If you no longer need your medication, or if it’s expired, get rid of it!  Take it to a “drug take back” event.  These drive-thru events are popping up all over our community.  The Chesterfield  County Police Department, in partnership with SAFE, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other business and volunteer organizations, has collected more than 7,500 pounds of medications since these events began in 2010.

Lead the way.  Be a role model.  Take your medications as prescribed.  Do not share with others.  And in the event you see yourself or a loved one taking more than as prescribed or for the wrong reasons, seek professional help.  

Before a teen is even tempted to embark on the dangerous journey of medication abuse, whether to “fit-in,” “escape or relax,” or take medications not prescribed to them as a form of “study aid,” they need to understand the dangers of all these forms of prescription drug abuse.  They need to know that prescription medications can lead to addiction.  They need to know that prescription drugs are not a “safe” alternative to illegal drugs.   They need to know that prescription drug abuse can take away their dreams, their hopes, and all too often, their lives as well.

Community problems need community solutions.  The time has come.  Will you join me in taking a stand against prescription drug abuse?

Parham Jaberi, MD, MPH is the director of Chesterfield Health District, Virginia Department of Health

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