The Partnership at Drugfree.org: Exclusive Interview About "The Medicine Abuse Project"
The Partnership at Drugfree.org is a non-profit organization working to educate parents and teens on the dangers of prescription drug abuse. They are launching the "Medicine Abuse Project" during the week of September 23rd, ultimately hoping to prevent half a million teens from abusing prescription drugs. The campaign involves encouraging Americans to take a pledge against medicine abuse and promotes accessible ways to dispose of unused pills. In an effort to help spread awareness about this issue, we sat down with Tom Hedrick to talk about prescription drug abuse and ways in which his organization is hoping to help stop the spread.
TestCountry: Good morning Tom! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Tom Hedrick: Good morning! Thank you for the help getting the word out about this troubling issue.
TestCountry: My pleasure. So, the Partnership at Drugfree.org focuses a lot on empowering parents through campaigns like the You Are Not Alone Campaign, dedicated to supporting families. In your opinion, do active parents and strong family communication make a big difference when teens are faced with experimenting with drugs? I ask because many parents feel like their teenagers don't listen to them. What do you think about that, and what would you say to those parents?
Tom Hedrick: Being a parent myself and being through it with a son who gave me similar impressions, and who seemed to always do the opposite of what I suggested and tell me to listen more and talk less, I can tell you that we developed the resources at our website precisely because parents feel so disempowered on this issue. They don't know what to say, particularly if they have experimented as teenagers and feel like they won't be listened to. There are many chronic diseases out there and most of them have world class resources available where they can ask questions from experts. But on this particular issue of substance abuse and teenagers, those resources largely don't exist, mostly because of the stigma and shame surrounding the issue. There are very few large medical systems offering treatment besides the smaller treatment centers, which don't really have the resources to help families at large.
So, what parents need most, and what our primary interest is, is getting teens through their teenage years being drug and alcohol free. 90% of addiction starts in adolescence. If you can get them through being a teenager, developing an addiction late in life is unusual. It helps to get them to make smarter decisions earlier.
Parents are crucial; we have learned this from studies done. They are important in recognizing symptoms and getting help, they have to be a part of treatment, and they need to learn how to be positive support system for recovery. They need to see that there are other options beside "tough love" or kicking the kids out, and that there are people they can go to for support even if they feel like their peer group steps away from them during this time of need. Research shows that "not wanting to disappoint my parents" is a huge factor for not doing drugs as a teenager. While teenagers give the impression that they don't listen, they really do. What they don't learn from their family, they will learn from their peers. This is why parents are so incredibly important, especially in those formative years between middle school and high school.
TestCountry: You have an upcoming project kicking off on September 23 dealing with teens and medicine abuse. Would you say the prescription drug abuse is the number one concern in terms of teen substance abuse?
Tom Hedrick: In more than 25 years, since I have been involved in this field, I have never been more troubled by anything we have experienced with kids than I am by medicine abuse. So little is done to address it in public health or by health care professionals, and so many kids are beginning to engage in it. There is so little out there raising awareness among parents and kids to show them how dangerous this behavior is. Unfortunately, there are many websites that explain to kids what medicines to take to achieve certain results, how to mix them with alcohol, and where to get them.
Part of the problem with education is that many parents don't know this is happening because it didn't happen when they were kids, and when they do find out they are relieved because at least their kids aren't using coke or pot. This is an incredibly dangerous response to a very serious problem. Over the last 5 years, there are now more accidental overdose deaths than there are from car accidents, making it the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. More people go to the emergency room for issues related to prescription drug abuse than for all street drugs combined. The CDC calls this one of the most significant public health epidemics of recent time.
You would think more people would take notice but it's really astonishing and difficult to comprehend how we haven't been able to crack into the attention of the media, the public, the health care community, and the public health authorities. Law enforcement and treatment centers are left dealing with the tragedy instead of moving the problem upstream to where it could make a difference. That's why we have this project, and will be focusing for the next 3 or 4 years on preventing half a million teens from abusing medicine.
Although, that being said, there is hope. We have been successful in reducing teen smoking by 50% in the past ten years, and also achieved a huge reduction of kids using street drugs and alcohol, because parents have been more active and expressed expectation. We can do that same with prescription drug abuse if parents engage in that same way, and properly safeguard and dispose of their medications.
TestCountry: Why do you think teens are drawn to prescription drug abuse instead of marijuana or other drugs?
Tom Hedrick: There is safety halo around prescription drugs because we have done such a great job about telling people that doctors can be trusted with prescribing drugs, and all our drugs must be FDA approved. The reality is that they are only safe if prescribed. Kids don't believe that medicines they can get from their parents and grandparents, or that they can take for a headache, are as dangerous, addictive, and deadly as street drugs. The medicine my mother took when she was dying of breast cancer is the same medicine that people were dying from 5 blocks from the hospice she resided in. Lives are lost by the same medicine that saves lives when used properly.
For example, the over-the-counter cough suppressants, which used to be available only in liquid cough syrup that would take 3 or 4 bottles before a kid would get high, are now available in little tablets and gel caps so you can take ten Tylenol Cough Cold pills, which is an overdose times 5 on Tylenol, a level that can severely damage the kidneys. This is the same with prescription stimulants for kids with ADHD, with tranquilizers and sedatives that can provide the same effects as PCP when taken with alcohol, and with prescription painkillers.
Because there is this safety halo, we need to work to educate people about the dangers, and help them secure their medicine cabinets to decrease the ease of availability to access these substances.
TestCountry: One of your goals during the Medicine Abuse Project is to prevent half a million teens from abusing prescription drugs. How will you achieve this?
Tom Hedrick: Well, we have a hotline people can call to speak to knowledgeable clinicians and caregivers regarding their questions. We also have a website full of resources they can access at any time. We will work to educate prescribers and health professionals, who are surprisingly not well educated on the topic. We will create tool kits for educators to use in classroom settings. Most importantly, we will work on informing the public and families, and helping them to understand. We can make a change in this-addiction is a brain disease, it changes brain chemistry. You need professional help and treatment to get away from these powerful medications.
We will challenge parents to take the pledge on the website, and to talk to their kids about medicine abuse to safeguard their medicines. Those two steps will begin to change the momentum in our favor.
TestCountry: What are going to be some of the major initiatives of the campaign?
Tom Hedrick: On Saturday the 29th, the DEA is hosting a national Take Back Day in every community where you can bring abused and expired medicines, no questions asked, and give them back to dispose of them properly. Many people don't know that you can't flush them down the toiler, or put them in the garbage. The best thing to do at home is to grind them up and mix in with coffee groups or kitty litter, place them in a separate bag, and then throw them away. This is one of our major initiatives.
We are also having a live iVillage chat on twitter on Monday the 24th, and on Thursday the 17th there is a live Hope for Recovery webinar with A&E Network. On the same day there will be a live facebook timeline at 8 PM with a livestream from a celebrity we have yet to confirm. Along with public service TV advertisements, print ads, and information on the internet, we will work with several partners to get the word out.
TestCountry: How would you recommend a person take action within his or her own community? Are there any programs in the Medicine Abuse Project that are replicable on an individual community level?
Tom Hedrick: I would recommend that they go to www.drugfree.org to download materials to organize in their community. If they know of someone who needs help, they can call our toll free help line at 1-855-DRUGFREE, to speak to a clinician. They can also go to http://medicineabuseproject.org, where they can learn more and do more.
TestCountry: Is current legislation keeping up with drug abuse in this country?
Tom Hedrick: One of the major things that could be implement nationwide is a state level prescription drug monitoring program. This is an exchange system where prescriptions, prescribers, and people getting prescriptions are tracked. This does not currently exist, but is a plan proposed by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Governor's Association. Places that have adopted that program have had great success.
Essentially, here's how it would work. Say a dentist gets called from a family out of town. The son has a terrible toothache, they will be home in 2 days, and they need 3 days worth of painkillers. If you had a prescription drug monitoring program, you go online and see if this person has had multiple prescriptions in the past week. Pharmacists and law enforcement would have the same access, so law enforcement officers could see who the main prescribers are who abuse the system. For example, in Florida 96 out of 100 of the top over prescribers make huge money for selling prescriptions. Now that we know who these people are, we can make changes, and we are starting to make real gains in Florida. With statewide systems like the one proposed by the DoJ, this could be done on a wider level.
TestCountry: In your opinion, what is the most important thing that people should know about the causes and effects of teen drug abuse?
Tom Hedrick: Honestly, you have to accept and acknowledge that medicines in your cabinet can be very dangerous for your kids and for other people's kids. You and your children have to understand medicines are serious, and just because it is medicine doesn't mean it is safe. Plenty of people regret making that mistake.
There is also something you can do. Kids rarely buy this stuff off the street-they get it from home. They get it from parents and grandparents. If you can safeguard those pills, and talk to them about the real dangers of medicine abuse, you can make a huge difference in their lives.
TestCountry: What is the most important thing that parents should know if they have a teen they suspect is using? What should their first steps be?
Tom Hedrick: If you start to notice changes in behavior, like your kid is becoming withdrawn, not doing well at school, or changing friends, most parents wait and hope they grow out of it. With substance abuse, the faster your act, the more likely you are to have a positive impact. The number one thing parents say in retrospect is that they wish they had acted sooner and trusted their instincts. Take action, get help, and don't feel like you need to do it yourself. Learn what the signs are, learn how to take steps, and call our toll free number to speak to a professional. Don't put it off until next month.
The thing is, if parents see bleeding or a rash, or their kids say they can't see the blackboard at school, parents take the child to a professional. Why can't we do the same thing here?
The woman responsible for the great addiction series on HBO, Sheila Nevins, talks about meeting a woman while talking to families. The woman said she had two daughters. One daughter was diagnosed with MS at a young age, which put a terrible strain on the family, both financially and emotionally. With the proper medical care they are managing. The other daughter developed an addiction, and they threw her out. She lived in the street and died after a few months. Her greatest regret is that she didn't treat her second daughter the way she treated her first.
We need to look at this as the preventable and treatable disease that it is. So many millions and billions of dollars could be saved, and so many lives. Don't think of this as a character disorder, think of it as what it is, chemicals changing your child's brain. We need to recognize it and take appropriate action.
TestCountry: Great. Thanks so much for the interview, Tom! I really appreciate all of this valuable information. We very much appreciate your time. Good luck with the upcoming campaign!