MOUNT VERNON — Cocaine, marijuana and heroin are the substances which generally come to mind when drug abuse is the topic of conversation. However, the misuse of prescription medications is reaching near epidemic proportions in the county, according to Rick Schlegel of the Freedom Center. The increasing experimentation by school-aged individuals is alarming health officials, law enforcement and school administrators.
“We’re seeing a big influx of opiate pain medication and OxyContin (mis)use,” Schlegel said. “It is just overwhelming. ... We have had a dramatic increase in referrals — self-referrals, family referrals and court referrals — all across the board. In March of 2008, for example, we had about 75 referrals. This March, that number reached 90. ... We have seen three drug overdoses in young adults in the last three or four months.”
Trena Leonard, a counselor at the Alternative Center, said school officials know that no school is immune to drug and alcohol issues, and they have implemented programs and policies to deal with the problem. However, she said, the abuse of prescription drugs is going largely undetected, partly because pills are much easier to conceal than other controlled substances, and apparently easier to acquire.
“All of us, teachers, staff members and parents, need to be educated and understand that our children are not immune to that and that it is everywhere. Most kids are getting them from their parents,” she said. “Not necessarily that their parents are giving pills to them, but from their parents’ medicine cabinets or their grandparents’ medicine cabinets, places where they have easy access.”
“It is a real temptation for some kids,” said John Marschhausen, East Knox superintendent. “Many of these cases involve students taking old and/or unused medication from family members — then selling the prescription medications.”
Leonard and Schlegel worry youngsters do not realize the potential lethal effects of taking prescription medications not specifically prescribed for them.
“Kids seem to think that if it’s a prescription,” Leonard said, “even if it’s someone else’s, then it can’t be bad. Kids need to know that a prescription that’s not yours can be deadly.”
“It can be real dangerous,” Schlegel said, “if the kids are stealing pills like Atavan or Valium from someone in their family and consuming them. Particularly if they mix alcohol on top if that; that’s where you get people accidentally overdosing.”
Although high-powered pain medication and antidepressants seem to be the most prevalent pills exchanged, one student told the News that some of the pills being circulated have been legitimately prescribed to other students.
“Kids who have something like [attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder] and take Aderol or Ritalin for that, they usually don’t take it and they’ll just sell them at school,” the student said.
The concern about prescription drug misuse is not an isolated school problem, Marschhausen said.
“This is a community problem and will take parents, teachers, grandparents, counselors, law enforcement and faith-based leaders — all working together — to provide the support, love, attention and education to keep our children safe,” he said.
“The prescription drug problem is bigger than our high schools,” one parent said. “It’s a big problem in the community, too. .. I think instead of blaming kids [who use and sell pills] and labeling them as bad kids, they should give them correct information. Also, how easy is it for 14-year-olds to go in grandma’s cabinet and take some Vicodin? She’ll never notice a couple of pills are missing. So maybe we should be educating the adults, too.”
Leonard, Marschhausen and Schlegel agree.
“Parents really, really, need to keep watch and take count of their prescription drugs,” said Leonard. “Even kids you would never think of taking pills are doing it, and parents can’t be in denial and go on thinking their kids are safe.”
“Parents and grandparents,” Marschhausen said, “need to be cognizent of what kids are doing. Unused medication can’t be left around the house and we must all look for the warning signs of trouble.”
The Freedom Center offers parent education programs on how to tell if one’s child is taking drugs, but Schlegel said it is hard to get many to attend. It also sponsors a narcotics anonymous group.
“Another program we’re trying to get off the ground,” he said, “is for parents and their students who are getting ready to graduate. We’ve had parents come in and say their child avoided the drug and alcohol scene in high school, but [not] when they went to college.”