If you’ve been keeping up with current events, chances are you are well aware of the dire reports of the United States' immense and worsening opioid crisis, which claimed as many as 130 lives every single day in the nation by 2017, the latest year data was collected. Yet amid the flurry of warnings and lamentations, one thing you likely haven’t heard is the enormous toll the crisis of addiction is taking on young people not only in America but also around the globe.
For far too long, youth have been largely excluded from conversations surrounding the opioid crisis, not to mention today’s intensifying efforts to combat it. But if our efforts to cut off the head of the dragon are truly to succeed, then we must wake up and recognize the menace this epidemic poses to our children. Above all, we must be proactive in rooting out addiction in our young people so that no more precious lives are taken before they even have a chance to truly begin.
The Belly of the Beast
No matter who, where, or when it strikes, addiction is a scourge. It thrives on destruction. It rips apart not only the minds, bodies, and spirits of the addict themselves but also shreds families, communities, entire nations.
As terrible as the effects may be on the fully-developed minds and otherwise healthy bodies of adults, the impact on brains and bodies that are still growing can be truly catastrophic. The neurological systems of adolescents exposed to opioids, alcohol, psychotropics, and other addictive substances may never completely recover from the damage wrought by addiction. But even those effects are secondary to the even deeper and more lingering psychological, emotional, and spiritual scars that most recovering teen addicts bear. Studies show that in 2016, an estimated 122,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 were addicted to prescription drugs, most of which they obtained either from their friends or from their own homes.
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As terrifying as opioid addiction may be, it’s not the drugs or the users that should be feared. There’s nothing wrong with taking an opioid when it’s medically necessary. The problem is knowing when and how to use them — and when and how to stop. This can be difficult when you are young and still learning how to make informed decisions. Opioid use should be carefully monitored by a care provider who has a reputation for ethical prescribing.
Unfortunately, though, despite all the news surrounding the opioid crisis and a host of government regulations recently introduced to contain it, too many care providers are still more than willing to overprescribe opioids to their patients at the first sign of pain. Before accepting that script, however, there are some important questions you and your guardians should ask your doctor to see if opioids are really your only option.
First, try to find out if there are any alternatives to help you control your pain, such as CBD oils, tinctures, and consumables. If your doctor insists that you need an opioid, make sure they prescribe the lowest feasible dose for the shortest amount of time. Limit how many pills you have access to in order to avoid temptation, and ask your guardian to work with your doctor to develop a plan to wean you off the medication as your body recovers from the injury.
Know When to Seek Help
No matter how aware you may be of the risk, or how many precautions you may have taken to avoid becoming dependent, it still happens. Addiction strikes the best of us. It is a disease like any other, and there is no shame in seeking help. Reaching out to social workers in your community or at your school can be your first step in building a new life free of addiction. Many social workers have received specialized training not only in supporting clients in their recovery, but also in connecting them with essential resources, from medical and psychological care to vocational training, employment, and housing support.
In recent years, it seems that talk of the opioid crisis is on everyone’s lips, but far less attention has been given to the profound impact opioid addiction is having on America’s youth. If we are truly going to win this war, then we must start by protecting our future, our young people. This includes ensuring that opioids are prescribed only in the rare instances where they are truly medically necessary, and then at the lowest doses and for the shortest amount of time.
Where alternative options exist, they should be attempted first. When opioids are required, they should always be accompanied by a plan for reducing addiction risk and weaning the patient off the medication as quickly and responsibly as possible. Finally, if and when addiction occurs, efforts must be made to recognize it and intervene as quickly as possible.
Youth does not mean immunity to opioid addiction. Quite the opposite. It is incumbent on us, young, old, and somewhere in between, to learn the signs and ensure that young addicts receive the help, support, understanding, and treatment they need.