Young People Especially Prone to Addiction
A new epidemic of fatal overdoses on prescription drugs has hit New York City, and observers have noted that many of the victims are often young people seeking to escape temporary discomfort or personal difficulties.
According to a new study by the city’s Health Department, there has been a shocking 111 percent increase of emergency-room visits stemming from abuse of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan from 2004 through 2010. The total number of these visits is 6,555. The study also found that the number of deaths by overdose from this group of anti-anxiety / sleeping pills has also shot up by 18 percent over five years, to a total of 226. These cases constituted 44 percent of all overdose deaths in New York City.
Interestingly, the Health Department analysis revealed that white, mostly middle-class residents comprise the segment of the city’s population most responsible for abusing the sedatives. Also of note, the borough with the highest rate of death by overdose is Staten Island, which has the largest rate of teenagers — 1.2 percent – who abuse these prescription drugs. This rate is practically double the rate of the city’s other boroughs.
As the last statistic demonstrates, young adults are often quite prone to prescription drug abuse, a phenomenon that can be explained by such factors as youthful recklessness and the desire to find a “quick fix” to temporary but seemingly overwhelming personal issues. Sam G., a 20-year-old recovering prescription drug addict from Great Kills who is receiving treatment at Camelot Counseling Centers in Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood, noted that his indiscriminate usage of Xanax nearly ruined his life.
“Xanax is a substance that completely changes you. You say and do things you would never do,” he declared. “Xanax had me conducting criminal behavior. My life spiraled out of control.” Sam’s descent into rampant over-the-counter drug dependency spiraled after he stole from a relative, but now he proudly says that he’s moving steadily toward his goal of a drug-free lifestyle.
The unsettling revelations in the Health Department study have prompted New York City health officials to plan an expansion of the city’s public awareness campaign against abuse of prescription drugs. Taking a stronger course of action, the state recently passed a law that strengthens government oversight of doctors and pharmacists who prescribe such drugs. “The perception that prescription drug misuse is safe is unfortunate and dangerous,” emphasized Adam Karpati, the Health Department’s executive deputy commissioner.
Experts in the field of drug treatment explain that the common use of sedatives took hold in a legitimate fashion back in the 1970s, when people routinely described Valium as “Mother’s Little Helper” (a moniker derived from a 1960’s Rolling Stones hit song on the topic of middle-class prescription drug use), taken by many to help alleviate their anxiety. Deni Carise, chief clinical officer of Phoenix House treatment centers, elaborated that the increasingly relative ease of obtaining these drugs – whether through a physician’s prescriptions, the household medicine cabinet or the Internet – has contributed heavily to a veritable epidemic of addiction.
Another aspect of prescription drug use that has gotten out of hand and led to serious health issues involves painkilling medication. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the latest figures reveal great increases over the period of 2000 and 2010 in the nationwide distribution of oxycodone, the main ingredient in the painkillers OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan. Some areas of the country experienced a sales increase of these medications by sixteenfold. At the same time, both Appalachia and the Midwest are witnessing a notable rise in the distribution of hydrocodone, the key ingredient in Vicodin, Norco and Lortab.
In an inevitable byproduct of the increased routine usage of these medications, there has been a rash of overdose deaths, pharmacy robberies and other related difficulties in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Florida and other states. Statistics show that opioid pain relievers – a category that includes oxycodone and hydrocodone – led to 14,800 overdose deaths just in the year 2008, and the death toll is going ever higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Across the United States, pharmacies dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010. In immediate terms, this amount would allow the distribution of forty 5-mg Percocets and twenty-four 5-mg Vicodins to every individual in the country.
Here too, while they are by no means the only age group to fall prey to such misuse, young people quite often have a tendency to become caught up in the habitual usage of prescription painkillers. Nineteen-year-old Makenzie Emerson, who lives in Islip, Long Island, admits that she began stealing oxycodone that was prescribed to her mother in 2009 after the middle-aged woman fell on some ice. Before long, Makenzie was taking painkilling pills six at a time. “When I would go over to friends’ houses I would raid their medicine cabinets because I knew their parents were most likely taking something,” said the teenager.
Makenzie’s situation hit rock bottom when she overdosed at a local shopping mall. Her mother, Phyllis Ferraro, did her best to keep her daughter breathing until the ambulance arrived on the scene. “The pills are everywhere,” Ferraro lamented. “There aren’t enough treatment centers, and yet there’s a pharmacy on every corner.” Makenzie Emerson recently completed a treatment regimen at Daytop Suffolk Outreach.
Gregory Bunt, medical director at New York’s Daytop Village group of drug treatment clinics, says that the dramatic increase in everyday usage of painkillers can be attributed to a certain degree to the aging American population, along with a greater willingness by physicians to cater to patients’ requests for treatment of pain. The gradual onset of addiction among many users likewise causes an increase in sales, as patients become physically dependent on painkilling pills and begin “doctor shopping” to guarantee a continuous flow of prescriptions.
“Prescription medications can provide enormous health and quality-of-life benefits to patients,” Gil Kerlikowske, the United States drug czar, explained to Congress in March. “However, we all now recognize that these drugs can be just as dangerous and deadly as illicit substances when misused or abused.”
Young adults seeking relief from stress will turn to opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone so they can experience the resultant intense feelings of well-being. While some abusers just swallow the pills outright, others crush them, and then smoke, snort or inject the powder.
While not quite as high as in other parts of the country, oxycodone sales rose significantly in New York City and its suburbs – in fact, Staten Island experienced a sales jump of 1,200 percent.
Drug experts are fretful that the sales of painkillers are spreading rapidly in areas where there is a shortage of clinics that can treat people who have become addicted. In Utica, N.Y., for example, Patricia Reynolds has gone to great lengths to obtain treatment after she became dependent on hydrocodone pills that had originally been prescribed for her for a broken tailbone.
The closest clinics that provide Suboxone, an anti-addiction drug, are located an hour’s drive away from Reynolds’ home, in Cooperstown or Syracuse. Even if she were willing to make the trip on a regular basis, those programs are full and not accepting new patients at present. “You can’t have one clinic like that in the whole area,” Reynolds said. “It’s a really sad epidemic. I want people to start talking about it instead of pretending it’s not a problem and hiding.”