Most parents today are diligent about talking to their teens about the risks of marijuana, underage drinking and even the bathroom cabinet threat of prescription drugs.
However, most aren’t familiar with the new realities of heroin use today. They may picture heroin users as homeless street junkies with hard-core habits and arms scored by needle tracks. But this is a risky misconception. The recent death of “Glee” actor Cory Monteith is a prime example of how much the face of heroin use in the United States has changed.
Today, statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show heroin users are very likely white, middle- to upper-class teens, college kids attending good schools and white-collar young adults who look nothing like the stereotypical hard drug user.
Many of the newest generation of users start as teenagers, often living in suburban or rural areas, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has documented an alarming 80 percent increase in first use of heroin among teens since 2002. Not only are there more users – there are more heroin-related deaths reported, too. In 2009, 510 teens and young adults between 15 and 24 died of a heroin overdose, up from 198 a decade earlier.
Young people are drawn to heroin for many reasons. It’s cheaper and more plentiful than other drugs – in fact, it may even be easier to obtain than alcohol, in some areas. Because South America and Mexico have increased their production of the drug over the past decade, it’s now much closer to the U.S., making it more accessible to American youth.
Some teens are also switching to heroin as a substitute for other drugs of choice. Recent pushes to make prescription painkillers like oxycodone more difficult to get have made these drugs more expensive and risky for recreational users. For those teens, heroin is easier to find and cheaper and produces an even more addictive buzz.
This creates another problem: Heroin is so highly addictive, users can often become dependent after only one use. Once teens experience the drug, they usually prefer the quick rush of a heroin high to anything else. It quickly becomes the drug of choice.
Sadly, this new uptick in heroin use among youth reverses the trend of the 1990s, when heroin use dropped as a result of awareness campaigns highlighting the AIDS crisis. Users didn’t want to risk getting the infection from sharing needles, and many abandoned the drug altogether. Unfortunately, this risk is no longer a great concern: Today, heroin is often snorted or smoked, making it as easy to use and as discrete as cocaine. Because of this new use trend, parents can also no longer rely on the tell-tale tracks and needle scars that used to make heroin users easy to identify.
Heroin abusers, particularly those with a prior history of drug abuse, may initially be able to conceal signs and symptoms of their heroin use, but parents should be on the lookout for signs of use, like shortness of breath, dry mouth, small pupils, sudden changes in a teen’s behavior or actions, disorientation, cycles of hyper alertness followed by suddenly nodding off or a droopy appearance, as if her arms and legs are heavy.
Even though it’s now harder to detect, the risks from heroin use are evident: In 2011, there were an estimated 258,482 U.S. emergency room visits resulting from heroin overdose, according to SAMHSA. The drug suppresses the respiratory system and central nervous system, and during an overdose, the user often stops breathing.
If you suspect your teen is using heroin, act immediately. A medically assisted detoxification program is often needed to help a user withdraw from the drug safely. After that initial step, behavioral treatment in combination with medication is usually the most effective recovery plan.
For more information about heroin, contact the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686 or find information online at www.drugabuse.gov. To learn more about the growing threat of heroin abuse among teens and how to talk to your teen about the risks, visit us at www.CompassRoseAcademy.org.