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Parent Wake-Up Call
Local Teen Opiate Use Still on the Rise
SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was a night that would permanently suspend a parent’s disbelief. The Parent University of Saratoga Springs City School District presented a program in conjunction with the Prevention Council on Tuesday evening that brought home in no uncertain terms that the heroin epidemic is just as real in Saratoga Springs as it is across the country. The program, "The Heroin Epidemic - What is the Impact on Saratoga Springs?” was held April 28 in the Saratoga Springs High School Library to about 75 parents, district staff and community members.
Speakers included Robin Lyle Director of Coalition Development at the Prevention Council and Maigan, a 26-year-old recovering opiate addict. With facts, figures, and honest revelations, the speakers brought home to parents the ease with which any child can access and become addicted to prescription drugs and heroin, including in Saratoga Springs.
"By hosting the Parent University workshop on heroin addiction, the School District brought attention to a growing problem in our community,” said Michael M. Piccirillo, Superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District. “Parents need to be informed about the connection between gateway drugs like alcohol and marijuana, which can lead to the use of opiates like heroin, so they can be vigilant in ensuring the health and welfare of their children.”
“Abuse of prescription pain killers has become more common in small cities like this one,” said Lyle, “so it's important that we get this information out there. We're seeing increasing numbers of overdose situations, and the NY Times recently reported that heroin overdose deaths now exceed traffic fatalities nationwide.”
Lyle spoke about the causes of the heroin epidemic, which she says primarily is the use and misuse of prescription drugs. “Young people aren't seeing it as risky now that it doesn’t need to be injected anymore.”
She advises that parents dispose of any unused, unwanted prescription drugs. “Opiate-based prescription drugs can get them started on heroin. Kids can get the same high from heroin for cheaper than from prescription drugs, which can run $150 per pill. A small bag of heroin is about ten bucks. Fifty percent of participants in drug treatment have court criminal charges related to heroin use, and all but one started with prescription drugs.”
The audience also heard from Maigan, a recovering addict. “Maigan was really terrific,” said Lyle. “She had a lot to share. It’s a harrowing story of something that could happen to any child. She was honest and courageous, and when she spoke of spending $1,000 a day to support her habit, the audience just gasped.”
"Sadly we have been experiencing approximately 4-6 heroin related overdose deaths per year for the past couple of years," said Saratoga Springs Police Chief Greg Veitch. "We have another 20 or so responses to overdose situations that require transport to the hospital."
According to Saratoga Springs Fire Chief Robert Williams, “Heroin is cheaper and more available. Teenagers tend to experiment and it’s very addictive. Once it gets ahold of you, it’s tough to get it off your back.” He said they answered 135 calls in 2014 for poison ingestion, which included alcohol and accidental or purposeful overdose. He said they administered Narcan 13 times over the last 12 months. “Narcan neutralizes the opiate receptors, reversing the effects within seconds.”
“We have definitely seen a significant rise in heroin,” said Veitch. “For perspective, from 2001-2006 when I worked in the narcotic unit as an investigator we never once were able to buy heroin on the street. From 2008-2013 when I supervised the drug unit we only purchased heroin on the street sporadically, maybe a few times per year. Today (2014-2015) we buy heroin on the street in about half of all narcotics purchases, which is about 20-30 times per year. We routinely arrest people in possession of small amounts and with needles (several times per month).”
“It's good that schools be very concerned about opiate addiction,” said William Bean, Program Manager at St. Peter's Addiction Recovery Center (SPARC) in Saratoga Springs at 125 High Rock Avenue. “They can help parents realize the issue is more the over-prescribed availability of opiates in households, which is a much more insidious problem than they might think. Adolescents will experiment with pills that are free. They find them and share them. We must let parents know that this medication needs to be closely guarded and locked up.”
Prescription drugs containing opiates that are often abused include: Vicodin (hydrocodone & acetaminophen), Percocet (oxycodone &acetaminophen), Oxycontin (oxycodone), Darvon (propoxyphene), Dulaudid (hydromorphone), morphine and codeine. Codeine can also be found in prescription cough medicine. For parents unsure if their medication includes opiates, Bean advises, “When in doubt, lock it up.”
A couple years ago, the state passed a law that mandated controlled substance prescriptions go into a shared database so people cannot go from doctor to doctor getting over-prescribed.
Dr. Manuel Astruc, M.D., Medical Director at Saratoga County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Center and practicing psychiatrist in Saratoga Springs for 18 years, added that the new law had some unintended consequences. “This new system mandates medical practitioners to check the patient’s database for already-prescribed controlled substances,” he said. “Now that supply has dried up. It’s resulted in more people turning to heroin. This is a real problem because they don’t know what they’re getting on the street. Potency and purity varies, increasing the risk of people dying from accidental overdose.”
Fortunately, recovery programs have improved greatly over the years and many are outstanding. “The adolescent program here is for those between 12 and 17 years old,” said Bean. “There are usually about 12-15 kids in a program on average. Groups meet twice a week, one with a family member present, such as a parent, and the other a teen topics group. We also have individual sessions. The average length of stay in the program is right around six months to eight months.”
Bean said that many of the program’s adolescents are referred either through a school, a family member, or through the legal system such as PINS, family court, criminal court, a probation officer, or a family physician or mental health provider such as Four Winds in Saratoga Springs.
“Recidivism is an issue, but anecdotally, I think that involving one or both parents has been very effective,” said Bean. “We know that treating an adolescent as an adult is not effective. We have wonderful staff here who do wonderful work with kids, and are able to hold their attention. We’ll see some kids come back into treatment and perhaps fall back into trouble, but there's no cure for addiction. That’s where parents come in, and it’s not easy. Adolescents are not really set up to talk with much intimacy with adults. Developmentally they are supposed to be developing relationships with their peers. When a parent asks an adolescent ‘where does it hurt’, it's counter-developmental. We introduce ways of communication to normalize that, educate parents and adolescents and help the process. Although they may look like it, the truth is that kids don’t stop listening.”
Dr. Astruc reminds parents, “An adolescent’s central nervous system hasn’t matured, which makes them more prone to risky behaviors. They are not adults, so we have to manage those expectations.”
Bean said that the issues that lead to someone wanting drugs start at a very early age. “The problems didn't happen yesterday,” he said. “We see a lot of parents come in and say ‘fix Johnny, there's nothing wrong with us’, but in truth it is a family disease. Nobody asks for addiction, but something in the family opens this up. Parents are going to ask, ‘how can we see this coming’, but you really can't.”
So what can a parent do? “Be as genuinely interested in your teenagers’ lives without smothering them,” said Bean. “As they get older, let them stretch outside the home, but still be involved and hold them accountable, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Kids do turn themselves around with treatment, and treatment helps everyone in the family. Communication is the central core of all of this. Listening and asking questions that lets them know you’re listening.”
"Monitor the painkillers or other prescriptions given legitimately to your child," said Lyle. "Count them, or dispense just the amount your child needs for that day. That way you know where those pills are going." Following doctor's orders will help keep children from becoming addicted to their medications that contain controlled substances like opiates.
"Teens and young adults often do not understand the risks associated with drug use," said Veitch. "In particular, heroin addiction is exceptionally difficult to handle for both the user and their loved ones. Heroin is an issue in Saratoga Springs as it is everywhere and law enforcement is only one part of the solution. Families, friends and service agencies all have a part to play in reducing the adverse effects that heroin has on individuals, their loved ones and the community.
Parent University is a community collaboration that offers opportunities for parents and caregivers to continue their learning. All events are open to parents, caregivers and staff of all buildings and grade levels.