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Expert: Prescription-drug abuse a problem everywhere


By Nathan Lamb

HARVARD — Studies indicate that nearly 50 percent of high-school seniors have tried some form of illegal drug in their lifetime, with 22 percent having done so within the last 30 days.

Those statistics do not include alcohol, but they do show the prevalence of teens using marijuana and abusing prescription medications. Prescription meds have become the second most popular group of drugs among adolescents, according to Shari Van Hook of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children’s Hospital, Boston.

Van Hook was in Harvard on Dec. 16 to speak with roughly 60 members of the Bromfield High School faculty, giving tips on the warning signs of prescription drug abuse and clearing up some frequent misconceptions on the issue — including the idea that it only happens “somewhere else.”

“The question was raised, ‘is this happening in our community,” she said, speaking afterwards. “I said definitely; it’s going on everywhere; no community is insulated from it.”

Van Hook also stuck around to host a parent forum on the issue that evening in the Bromfield library, but no one, except for this reporter, attended. Though event organizers didn’t think so, it seems likely that a sign on the front door might have had something to do with it. It told would-be attendees that the event location was changed to the “library.” The nearby town library was closed.

That being the case, she shared much of her presentation with this reporter, with the hopes of reaching parents by that route.

A central theme was that many adolescents believe prescription medications are safer because they’re prescribed by doctors, and that those types of drugs are typically easy for them to get — sometimes as simple as a trip to the medicine cabinet.

Regardless of how easily they can be obtained, Van Hook said it’s unsafe for anyone to use prescription drugs other than directed by a doctor, adding that adolescent substance abuse can impact the brain while it’s still developing, making it harder for teens to think of consequences for their actions or making them more likely to abuse substances.

Overall, Van Hook described substance abuse as a major issue facing adolescents, noting statistics that indicate more than 70 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol in their lifetime, 44 percent in the past month. Further, she cited statistics that put Massachusetts in the top 10 states nationwide for drinking among ages 12-17, with the state placing in the top 5th percentile for alcohol/illicit drug abuse, both according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another set of statistics suggested that teens who get drunk monthly are almost four times more likely to know someone who misuses prescription drugs.

In each case, Van Hook said the example set by family role models is very important, noting a University of Maryland study that indicated 74 percent of teens with permissive households were more likely to drink heavily, compared with 27 percent in nonpermissive households.

In terms of what parents can do, Van Hook said it’s important that they’re involved with their children’s lives, saying setting good examples, eating as a family, and having clear expectations all help. She also advised parents to monitor their children’s whereabouts, and be on lookout for classic warning signs of abuse, such as loss of interest in other activities, changes in behavior or friends, and falling school performance.

“Mostly it’s being aware and paying attention,” she said.

Van Hook came to Harvard as part of the Community Education Initiative at Children’s Hospital, Boston, through a Nashoba Valley Community Health Care fund grant that was secured jointly by Bromfield High School and the Council on Aging (COA) last year.

Asked about the grant, COA Director Ginger Quarles said the focus was on preventing prescription drug abuse, both by seniors and adolescents. It already funded a handful of discussions with seniors on that issue. The Bromfield forum was the last of the grant events, she said.

Planning for the grant was assisted by consultant Ellen Lebinson, who attended the afternoon and evening forums, and vouched for teachers learning some good information that afternoon.

“I actually reviewed evaluations that the teachers did of the talk, and most of them said they learned something new,” she said. “A couple of them mirrored my reaction: that this is very depressing and very frightening, but that makes it important.”

Educators and health-care providers looking to contact the Community Education Initiative may do so by calling 617-355-8431. Children’s Hospital runs an Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, which can be reached at 617-355-2727 or through the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research Web site,