PITTSFIELD >> The opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc on our county, state and nation in what has become an unprecedented public health crisis. Overdose deaths continue to rise despite significant public outcry and corrective actions by lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.
Unfortunately, too many young people are succumbing to drug and alcohol addiction at earlier ages and treatment often comes too late. As behavioral health providers, we know the best way to halt the opioid crisis is to ensure people never start using. However, lost in the larger dialogue around addiction and treatment is a critical discussion around prevention and risk reduction. We need to educate our children and arm them with the facts about the harm and consequences of substance use:
* If not taken under doctor's orders, all prescription drugs can kill.
* One in four first-time recreational users of opioids becomes addicted.
* Drug use changes brain development, and when substances are used during adolescence, young people are much more susceptible to addiction.
* Once you start, it's extremely difficult to stop.
A larger focus on preventative and education measures will help our next generation and reduce the number of youth and young adults falling into substance dependency. We know evidence-based prevention programs and routine screenings work so we need to start substance use education much earlier, as young as elementary school.
By reaching out to schools we are better able to engage youth. School-based prevention programs that offer an open, honest dialogue and are not based on scare tactics resonate with kids are likely to be effective.
While opioids are certainly our most alarming concern, other drugs that are popular with young people present concerns as well. For instance, marijuana use has dramatically risen over the past several years as the drug is increasingly perceived as more acceptable. Let's be clear — marijuana is not harmless. Not only is the drug's potency significantly higher than in previous years, the frequency of its use throughout the day has increased. Many of the kids we treat were in the habit of smoking morning, noon and night.
While no scientific evidence directly supports that marijuana is a gateway to opioids, it is clear that a plurality of the addicts we treat started out smoking weed. But marijuana on its own has consequences when abused. The same goes for alcohol. And when drug and alcohol abuse develops into full-blown opioid addiction the consequences are even more devastating.
Statistics show that 9 out of 10 people with addiction started using substances before they turned 18. In Massachusetts alone, the figures from a 2014 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration remain startling:
* Approximately 8 in 10 (79 percent) adolescents aged 12–17 perceived no great risk from smoking marijuana once a month — a percentage higher than the national percentage.
Approximately 47,000 adolescents aged 12–17 (9.7 percent of all adolescents) per year reported using illicit drugs within the month prior to being surveyed.
* Approximately 140,000 individuals aged 12–20 (17.7 percent of all individuals in this age group) per year in 2013–2014 reported binge alcohol use within the month prior to being surveyed.
Here in the Berkshires, we see the increasing need for research-based drug use education and prevention programs in our schools and communities but these programs are in dire need of funding. While the majority of addiction treatment services are funded via state funding or through insurers and MassHealth, youth substance use prevention services receives no funding stream.
Our ability to provide quality prevention education in schools is solely dependent on the donations and grants received from foundations such as the Crane Foundation and agencies such as the Northern Berkshire United Way, Williamstown Community Chest and the city of Pittsfield.
More funding for prevention education services in our community makes economic sense because it translates to more schools where we can visit, educating more students, saving more lives from the grips of addiction. Because we know too well, over the long term, dealing with drug and alcohol addiction after the fact is an even more costly, impractical approach.
By focusing prevention education toward young people, well before they are faced with that first drink or hit, we can reduce the risk of substance use disorders and increase the likelihood of success in their lives. As a community we must invest in starting the conversation with our kids, arm them with the facts and protect them from the dead end of addiction.
James Mucia, LICSW, is the Division Director of Child and Adolescent Services at The Brien Center.