From Glee to Reality: Teens, Prescription Drugs & Addiction?

The topic of teenage drug abuse dramatically upstaged other plot lines on Glee, a popular television show about a high school singing club.  Addiction took center stage after the off-screen overdose death of cast member Cory Monteith, who played Finn, a high school football star. In his personal life, Mr. Monteith, 31, battled alcohol and drug problems that began when he was a teenager.

That’s not just something that happens in Hollywood, says John Eustace, M.D., medical director of the Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center at South Miami Hospital.  And, he says, parents should regularly talk to their children about substance abuse. Campaigns like Red Ribbon Week, a national anti-drug program running through Oct. 29, offer one such opportunity to have this important discussion.

Dr. Eustace offers parents the following information to start their conversations:

Are more kids abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs?
Definitely!  In 2012, nearly 15 percent of 12th graders experimented with prescription drugs, according to The National Institute of Drug Abuse. The stimulant Adderall and the pain killer Vicodin are the most frequently abused drugs.

Why are teens turning to drugs, especially prescription drugs?
The teenage brain — the immature brain — is hard-wired to pursue excitement. In the past, marijuana and speed primarily attracted teenage thrill-seekers.

Now, TV commercials and magazines expose kids to ads for anti-depressants, painkillers and stimulants. Kids overhear parents and grandparents discussing pain medications.  And teens know the average drug test does not target abuse of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. That abuse can fly under the radar, so more kids turn to these types of drugs.

What are “pharm” parties and do they really exist?
So-called pharm parties are definitely real.  Here’s what happens: Someone will produce a large bowl; party-goers, who have raided their own medicine cabinets, will fill the bowl with assorted drugs.  Handfuls of random drugs are swallowed, and any handful could contain a toxic mix of antibiotics, tranquilizers, painkillers, anti-hypertension pills, sleep medicine or whatever.

It’s almost like Russian roulette because there’s no telling what kinds of drugs are in each handful or how the combination of drugs will interact. Kids face the immediate risk of overdose or adverse effects after taking unauthorized doses of pills designed for serious medical conditions.

Emergency rooms, including those at Baptist Health hospitals, are seeing more young people with palpitations, panic attacks and other conditions created by nonmedical use of prescription drugs. The kids don’t intend to hurt themselves, but they’re playing a dangerous game at pharm parties.

What can parents do to prevent teenage drug and alcohol abuse?
Make time to really talk to your child.  Ask questions about the concerts and parties your teens are attending; ask about their friends and their feelings.  Offer heartfelt messages of concern with equal doses of love and attention. Provide consistent, balanced messages delivered through words and actions.

Those kinds of interactions and discussions are absent in the lives of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs. Parents also create, contribute or enable problems by offering teens the first drink or drug experience. Other parents host or look the other way during parties where drugs and alcohol are present. To make matters worse, some parents who enable substance abuse later express over-sized outrage and make harsh pronouncements when their kids land in academic or legal problems because of drug or alcohol abuse. Those inconsistent or conflicting messages alienate teens and set the stage for substance abuse and addiction.

Why are some teens more likely to abuse drugs or become addicted?
It’s really a difficult issue. Out of 100 kids who experiment with alcohol, drugs or marijuana, 15 will become addicted because of how their brain is wired. Some brains are just more susceptible to addiction. Those are the kids we have to pick out early. It’s not about punishing or shaming them. It’s about early intervention. That’s the basis of everything we do.

In the future, the technology will be widely available to scan and detect neurological, biological or genetic factors that increase the risk of addiction. But until that time, look for the signs of drug abuse, including lower grades and deterioration of personal appearance, moods and language.

What’s your philosophy for treating teenage substance abuse?
Recovery from addiction is an ongoing process. That’s because addiction is a disease that is progressive and chronic.  What’s more, there are very serious consequences if addiction is left untreated. Fortunately, it can be treated, and the cycle of addictive behavior stopped. As with many other kinds of serious illness, professional treatment is necessary.

Our physicians, therapists and psychologists use an interdisciplinary approach to address all aspects of the illness. Treatment options include detoxification, family counseling, psychotherapy and separation from a negative environment. It’s important to be caring and have genuine respect for the dignity, worth and uniqueness of each individual.


In Cory Monteith’s case, it’s likely an early intervention would have saved his life.  Dr. Eustace urges parents to look to their child’s future and have the tough conversations today to prevent a tragedy tomorrow.


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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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