The number of young adults who abuse prescription drugs is dwindling, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
However, a press release reported that the survey also showed heroin use is on the rise. In 2007, the number of people ages 12 and older who used heroin in the last year was 373,000, but that number grew in 2012 to 669,000.
Experts don’t think this is a coincidence. In fact, people who abuse prescription drugs could very well be transitioning over to the cheaper, more accessible drug heroin.
Deni Carise, deputy chief clinical officer at CRC Health Group, said in an email that she sees the transition between prescription drugs and heroin with young adults specifically. Many do these drugs with friends and then get addicted.
Carise provides some physical signs of heroin addiction:
1) “Constricted (small) pupils.”
2) “Dry mouth.”
3) “Shortness of breath.”
4) “Sudden changes in behavior or actions.”
6) “Droopy appearance, as if extremities are heavy.”
7) “Runny nose (not explained by other illness or medical condition.”
8) “Needle track marks visible on arms.”
9) “Infections or abscesses at injection site.”
Here are some psychological symptoms:
1) “Lack of motivation; inability to focus, appearing lethargic or ‘spaced out.’”
2) “Appearing fearful, withdrawn, anxious, or paranoid, with no apparent reason.”
3) “Sudden mood changes, irritability, angry outbursts or laughing at nothing.”
4) “Unexplained change in personality or attitude.”
5) “Periods of unusual hyperactivity or agitation.”
Dr. Kim Dennis, the medical director and CEO of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, said in an email that currently there is a prescription drug abuse epidemic. And when people who are dependent on opiates like morphine run out of drugs due to harsher enforcement, they turn to the next alternative: heroin.
“I also think it is on the rise because we are living with a lot more pain as a society, and our capacity to spend quality time with others as a source of comfort has been eroded by the ways we live/work/communicate via technology,” Dennis said.
In addition, heroin gives a quicker and greater high than prescription drugs.
She added that people with opiate dependence tend to suffer from other mental illnesses. The women she’s treated have at least one other mental disorder like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or eating disorders.
Erin Goodhart, clinical supervisor for the Primary Care Women’s Unit at Caron Treatment Centers, said in an email that tolerance develops quickly with heroin use, and people who “experiment” generally end up with becoming addicted.
Although it might seem like a major jump to go from prescription drugs to heroin, in essence the prescribed drugs are not being used in the way they were intended and are not as safe as they appear. Abusing prescription drugs can even lead to death in some cases.
“I recently worked with a woman who was taking painkillers ‘as prescribed’ for many years and, as time went on, found herself needing more and more,” Goodhart said. “She always said she would ‘never use street drugs.’”
“However, she found herself using IV heroin along with her pain medications,” she added. “This patient was a middle-aged mother of two small children, from a prominent and financially secure family in her bathroom using IV heroin.”
She added that women tend to put off treatment until their addiction has become severe, and this could partly be due to social stigma and fear of leaving their family and children for treatment. Women might also be highly influenced by a partner who uses heroin.
Heather Sutton, media relations and project director for the Metropolitan Drug Commission, said in an email that new prescription drug regulations are making it harder to abuse drugs like oxycodone.
“Many opiate medications have been reformulated with safeguards to prevent crushing, breaking or dissolving,” Sutton said. “Increased prevention measures have also driven up the street value of prescription painkillers, leading many to shift over to heroin.”
For parents who suspect that their children are using heroin, it could be a red flag to find bandanas or rubber ties lying around, since those can be used to tie around the arm to make veins bulge, Sutton said. Burned spoons, aluminum foil/gum wrappers, small plastic bags with a white powder substance and used needles are also objects of concern.
SAMHSA. National survey shows continued reduced levels of prescription drug use among young adults. Web. September 4, 2013.
SAMHSA. Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings and Detailed Tables. Web. September 4, 2013.
Carise, Deni. Email interview. September 4, 2013. http://www.crchealth.com/
Dennis, Kim. Email interview. September 4, 2013.
Sutton, Heather. Email interview. September 4, 2013.
Goodhart, Erin. Email interview. September 5, 2013.
Reviewed September 6, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith