Which is easier to talk about: heroin junkies or disease prevention?
As program manager for a non-profit that seeks to educate youth about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, the biggest hurdle I face is denial. Not on the part of youth- they know what’s going on around them, but on the part of adults in general and parents in particular. Many parents are hesitant to talk about prescription drug abuse because they fear giving kids ideas or because they mistakenly believe that their kids would never abuse prescription drugs.
I recently spoke to the leader of a youth program my son is involved in, who claimed that none of the 150 teens in his program had ever experimented with prescription drugs. Yet when I told my son of this conversation he instantly rattled off the names of several students in that very youth group who he knew had abused prescription drugs. He also said he suspects that there is much more youth that isn’t aware of who have abused prescription drugs. Yet this leader was convinced that the youth involved in his program were not tempted by prescription drugs. Adults are the gatekeepers of youth so we must find a way to open them up to a dialogue about prescription drug abuse. We can start by focusing on addiction as a preventable medical condition. When we frame the conversation as one that focuses on healthy lifestyle choices and disease prevention they will grant us access to their youth.
Those of us in the addiction field know that the current heroin epidemic is largely the result of the proliferation of prescription drug abuse and that prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drug among teens, after marijuana. Parents don’t want to consider the idea of their kids snatching pills from the family medicine cabinet, much less talk about the possibility that the young people in their lives may become addicted to those pills and then switch to cheaper heroin. “My kid a heroin junkie?? Never!!” If we start with, “Hey, did you know that addiction is a preventable disease? Let’s talk about how we can protect your family from this medical condition,” they are open to discussion. It’s only natural.
Parents want to protect their kids from all kinds of things- from the danger of running into the street when they are young children to the potentially fatal consequences of teens texting while driving. Parents stress the value of good nutrition and exercise to prevent illness and obesity. Parents ensure that their children are aware of family health issues which they may have inherited tendencies for, such as high cholesterol or breast cancer. When we frame the conversation as disease prevention we take away the fear the topic usually engenders and replace it with a strong desire to educate and protect loved ones. Suddenly adults are open to what we have to say and encourage us to inform their youth.
When we talk about addiction from a medical perspective we also provide a safe platform from which to talk about people suffering from addiction. This dramatically changes the way addicts are viewed: no longer are they junkies who should just “get their act together”; they are people just like you and me, who are suffering from a disease. This is an epiphany for most people and rolls back the shame addiction sufferers and their families have felt for years. We need to remind people that there is help and hope for people suffering from addiction, just as there is help and hope for people suffering from cancer.
We can prevent prescription drug abuse by educating everyone-parents, youth, youth and community leaders-about the disease of addiction. We need to talk about addiction as a preventable and treatable disease. In so doing we can help to remove the stigma associated with addiction and ensure that those who are suffering from addiction can get the medical attention they need, while surrounding their loved ones with support. It is a message that offers help, hope and healing.
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