It seems we finally have decided to accept the notion we have a heroin problem around here.
It appears we grudgingly have accepted this unpleasant reality largely on the shoulders of the overdose deaths of some of our young people. These young people, by the way, never started out to be heroin addicts and were at one point good students, athletes, artists, friends, good sons and daughters.
There still are pockets of doubt and some who believe it’s here but “not in our school,” “not that young” or “not that prevalent,” all of which are subtle ways to distance ourselves from the fact the problem is obvious, scary and potentially lethal.
To address such a pervasive public health problem, I think it will take a number of different approaches; from the medical and treatment side, the law enforcement side, the education and prevention side and from the parental/societal and attitudinal perspective. So let me speak to the attitudes.
Most of the heroin-addicted kids I have talked to started their opiate addictions problems with prescription pain medication, most of which came from home medicine cabinets or from friends. The attitude of most of these kids is the pain killers are relatively harmless. They seem to be unaware of the potency and addictive potential of the things they are taking. In one family I know, mom was pretty much totally chemically managed; a Xanax if she was a little upset, an Ambien (or two) to sleep and a little stimulant for her adult attention deficit disorder along with plenty of opiate pain medication for assorted aches and pains. She was furious at her twenty-something son because he was “stupid” enough to get in trouble with drugs and had to go to detox.
I don’t want to appear to blame the mom, only to emphasize attitudes are inherited – they don’t come from nowhere. So if our kids think prescription drugs are “harmless” or just part of the program, we might start by examining our own attitudes toward them.
Do we think it’s no big deal to take a pill? Do we “self -prescribe” from our medicine cabinet or “borrow” from others who have something we think might help? Do we over-use because we think that it’s OK or that we know better than the doctor? These are all dangerous behaviors for the user but also can be dangerous in attitudinal ways that aren’t immediately apparent.
I think if we want to deal with the heroin problem in our area, we’ll have to start with the misuse and maybe over prescribing of opiate pain medication and our own attitudes toward them. Maybe if we handle our pain with fewer drugs and more prevention and we treat those drugs that we do use with a greater respect, we’ll have a head start on the attitude adjustment necessary to help our potentially opiate-addicted kids.
Maybe we’ll be able to approach those kids who have already crossed the line with a little less judgment and a little more clarity.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.