A New Prescription for Fighting Drug Abuse: Raising Student Awareness about the Consequences of Prescription Drugs Has Taken on a New Urgency

By Schachter, Ron | District Administration, February 2012 | Go to article overview

A New Prescription for Fighting Drug Abuse: Raising Student Awareness about the Consequences of Prescription Drugs Has Taken on a New Urgency


Schachter, Ron, District Administration


It's a drug prevention conversation--and program--that was largely missing as recently as a decade ago in most middle and high schools. In those days, the principal concern of health educators and disciplinarians alike was to keep students from misusing alcohol and illegal street drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and even heroine.

But driven by the proliferation of high-powered prescription drugs, from the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin to the ADHD remedy Adderall--and sobered by prescription drug abuse statistics for school-age children-educational leaders are answering back with a host of new initiatives targeted to that very problem and aimed largely at middle schools, where such drug abuse often begins.

The statistics are daunting. According to a 2011 study funded by the MetLife Foundation, more than 3.2 million--1 in 4--high school students admitted to abusing prescription drugs at least once in their lives. In a 2008 survey by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, using prescription drugs illegally ranked second only to marijuana use among teens. Another government study in 2007 found that illicit prescription drugs were the drugs of choice for 12- and 13-year olds.

Besides the risk of addiction and overdoses, the widespread and unauthorized use of these drugs is having other far-reaching effects. The 2009 National Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed a strong correlation between illicit prescription drug use and academic performance in high school. Of those students who had taken such drugs once or more, 26 percent earned mostly Cs, while 41 percent registered Ds and Fs.

Last fall, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) started distributing "Smart Moves, Smart Choices," a comprehensive "school toolkit" designed to prevent prescription drug abuse and featuring noted authority Drew Pinsky in a series of video segments.

"It was a data-driven decision," says NASN'S director of government affairs, Mary Louise Embrey, of the new initiative "Every day, 2,500 young people abuse prescription drugs for the first time."

The National Education Association's (NEA) Health Information Network is creating an anti-prescription-drug-abuse curriculum that its framers promise will adhere to the National Health Education Standards and to the Common Core State Standards. The curriculum is scheduled for release at the NEA's national conference in July.

Some school districts, meanwhile, have taken prescription drug education into their own hands--the result, say their leaders, of growing abuse in their communities and fatalities in their schools.

A New Epidemic

The creators of the new programs say it's no surprise that the teenage abuse of prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions. Besides the unprecedented abundance of such drugs, many teens think these substances are perfectly legal and safe. "They don't necessarily have the maturity level to understand that a drug-even if it comes from a doctor--may not be safe if it isn't used as prescribed," Embrey explains. "In the teenage mind, there's the perception that (abusing) the drug is not illegal because it comes from a doctor."

"Most kids would never consider doing heroin," adds Lisa Roberts, co-founder of the Scioto County Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force in southeastern Ohio, which has provided funding for surrounding school districts to create new programs. "A lot would consider taking a pill because it came from a doctor and must be safe. But the reality is that OxyContin and hydrocodone (the generic form of OxyContin) will addict you. I know tons of kids who became addicted that way."

It doesn't help that some popular institutions take the misuse of prescription drugs lightly, adds Pamela Bennett, executive director of healthcare alliance development at the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which developed the widely distributed pain killer OxyContin and is funding the new NEA curriculum. …

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