Prescription drug abuse is a public health epidemic in Ohio, having increased over 350 percent between 1999 and 2008 and having become the current leading cause of injury death in the state.
In April of 2010, Gov. Ted Strickland established the Ohio Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force (OPDATF). In early October, OPDATF released its final report. The task force found that the number of Ohio deaths due to unintentional drug overdose is about 26 percent higher than the national rate. The OPDATF report warns that "prescription opoids are largely responsible for this alarming increase in drug overdose death rates. The opoids most associated with overdose are methadone, oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin), hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and fentanyl." The majority of Ohio's unintentional overdose deaths involving prescription opoids also involved at least one other drug, most commonly heroin and cocaine. This is not surprising, given that individuals who are addicted to prescription opoids often switch to heroin because in the drug trade it is less expensive and provides a similar high.
This epidemic has significantly impacted Ohio's youth; four out of the five top drugs abused by high school seniors are prescription or over-the-counter medications. A 2008 survey issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teens are more easily able to obtain prescription drugs than alcohol. The 2006 Monitoring the Future Study, which identifies youth drug use trends, found that prescription drug use among all teenagers is second only to marijuana use and is second to none among 12- and 13-year olds.
The reasons for the skyrocketing abuse of prescription medications by our youth include the fact that they only have to go through the medicine cabinets of family or friends to obtain the drugs and they often think the drugs are safer than other substances since they were prescribed by a medical doctor.
Medicinenet.com provides 10 signs of abuse of opoid painkillers, the most commonly abused prescription drugs:
1. Usage increase - Over time, it is common for individuals taking prescription medications to grow tolerant to the effects of their prescribed dose. If someone you know seems to be increasing his/her dose over time, this is an indication that the amount they were taking is no longer providing them relief.
2. Change in personality - Changes in a person's normal behavior can be a sign of dependency. Shifts in energy, mood, and concentration may occur as every day responsibilities become secondary to the need for the relief the prescription provides.
3. Social withdrawal - A person experiencing a dependency problem may withdraw from family, friends and other social interaction.
4. Ongoing use - Continued usage after a medical condition has improved will result in the person needing extensions on his/her prescription. The person might talk of how they are "still feeling pain" and need just a little longer on the medication in order to get well. He or she might also complain frequently about the doctors who refused to write the prescription for one reason or another.
5. Time spent on obtaining prescriptions - A dependent person will spend large amounts of time driving great distances and visiting multiple doctors to obtain the drugs. Watch for signs that he or she seems preoccupied with a quest for medication, demonstrating that the drug has become their top priority.
6. Change in daily habits and appearance - Personal hygiene may diminish as a result of a drug addiction. Sleeping and eating habits change, and a person may have a constant cough, runny nose and red, glazed eyes.
7. Neglect of responsibilities - A dependent person may call in sick to work more often, and neglect household chores and bills.
8. Increased sensitivity - Normal sights, sounds and emotions might become overly stimulating to the person. Hallucinations, although perhaps difficult to monitor, may occur as well.
9. Blackouts and forgetfulness - Another clear indication of dependence is when the person regularly forgets events that have taken place and appears to be suffering blackouts.
10. Defensiveness - When attempting to hide a drug dependency, abusers can become very defensive if they feel their secret is being discovered. They might even react to simple requests or questions by lashing out.
Major Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff's Office believes that prescription drugs and marijuana are the most common drugs of abuse among Washington County youth. He advises parents to educate themselves about the risks of abusing prescription medications and to communicate those risks to their children. The Partnership at drugfree.org provides and wealth of information about prescription drug abuse and prevention of such abuse.
Major Warden says, "I firmly believe that we as a community can stop this by taking control of our medicine cabinets. Keep current prescriptions in a secure place and keep an exact running count of the pills, and get rid of the medications that you are not using." Federal guidelines for prescription drug disposal can found at www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov.
Miriam Keith is consumer support coordinator of the Washington County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Board. Mental Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the first Saturday of each month.