Red Ribbon Week is approaching, and middle schools across Florida will be raising awareness and facilitating communication about kids making healthy choices. The red ribbons that teachers and students will wear aren’t just for decoration—they signify a commitment to staying safe and resisting the dangers of teenage drug and alcohol use. Such a campaign would seem naturally geared toward high schoolers, but the message is just effective for middle schoolers and even earlier. In fact, the years when kids are 11-14 might be the most important time to deliver these messages.
As much as we want to believe middle schoolers aren’t old enough to be abusing drugs and alcohol, the reality is junior high kids are just as vulnerable as high schoolers, perhaps even more so. The parts of the young adolescent brain that deal with stress are still maturing, and the coping mechanisms they learn now can become ingrained for the rest of their lives. If middle schoolers turn to drugs this early, they can be setting themselves up for a lifetime of struggle.
Chief among substances that middle schoolers might abuse are prescription drugs. Ease of accessibility drives this problem: Pills might simply be in kids’ medicine cabinets and could have even been prescribed to them. Here are some prescription drug abuse facts that teachers in Florida middle schools—as well as parents—should know:
Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics
An estimated 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs non-medically at least once in their lifetimes. Prescription drug misuse is a problem across all age groups; for example, 1,700 young adults (ages 18-25) died from overdoses in 2014, which represents a 400 percent increase of 1999. Middle and high schoolers are just as at risk for misusing. A 2013 study discovered 24 percent of teens—almost 1 in 4—had misused prescription drugs at least once. Of these kids, 1 in 5 said they had first done so before age 14.
Effects of Opioid Use
In 2015, just under 1 percent of eighth graders used Vicodin or OxyContin at least once in the previous year. Although that doesn’t seem like much, the numbers for both drugs jump to around 4 percent by 12th grade—a 300 percent increase. Another survey discovered that 168,000 teens were addicted to prescription painkillers in 2014. Long-term effects of opioid addiction include nausea and vomiting, abdominal distention and bloating, liver damage, and brain damage caused by hypoxia (opioids cause respiratory depression).
A Gateway to Heroin
The increase in opioid addiction has led to an unintended and unfortunate side effect—an increase in heroin use. When teens can’t secure the prescription drugs they are addicted to, they often turn to heroin, which in some areas might be easier to obtain and less expensive. In 2012, 156,000 tried heroin for the first time, which is about a quarter of all the drug’s users for that year. Moreover, prescription drug addicts are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin than someone who doesn’t abuse pills.
Adderall and Ritalin as Study Aids
Approximately 2.7 million, or about 1 in 8, teens have used Ritalin or Adderall—traditionally prescribed for ADHD—as a study aid for those without ADHD, and about 1 in 4 think doing so is OK. Parents can be considered part of the problem with this growing epidemic: 29 percent believe Ritalin and Adderall can improve a child’s academics, even if the child doesn’t have ADHD.
These facts should give Florida middle schools pause as Red Ribbon Week approaches. The numbers are stark, but there is a ray of hope among the statistics: Teens, especially younger teens, listen and take heed to strong drug-free messages and conversations. Work with parents to get the message to students. Preventing prescription drug misuse is a challenge for sure, but a challenge that is worth accepting for the safety of our kids.
Do you feel prescription drugs are a big problem in Florida middle schools?