“So the brain just doesn’t know how to regulate itself yet. They’re like Ferraris with weak brakes,” said Dr. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist and author of book The Teenage Brain, which talks about teenagers who are driven by impulses, moods, cravings and emotions.
Jensen said the “effects of substances are more enduring on the teen brain” and they have a lethal influence on the mental and physical health of adolescents as compared to adults. A recent study by the New York University found that teens who use prescription opioids for non-medical reasons more frequently have a higher risk of becoming dependent on heroin.
Non-medical use of opioids is a public health issue in the United States with a rapid increase in overdoses, treatment admissions, and deaths being reported from across the nation. The study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in January 2016, showed that teens are also at an increasing risk of using both heroin and non-medical opioids. In fact, a subset of opioid users may be transitioning to heroin, which is often more likely to lead to deleterious outcomes.
The study analyzed 67,822 American high school seniors from 130 private and public schools in the U.S. The data was taken from a nationally representative sample of students identified in the Monitoring the Future study, conducted during 2009 to 2013, and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
The researchers examined the relationship between frequency and time period of non-medical use of opioids and heroin. They also analyzed the socio-demographic correlates of the usage of each drug.
The study found that about 12.4 percent of high school seniors reported using lifetime non-medical opioids and 1.2 percent reported lifetime heroin use. The increase in frequency of lifetime non-medical use of opioids amplified the chance of heroin usage. Around 77 percent of the surveyed students who indulged in heroin abuse reported using non-medical opioids. Moreover, almost one-quarter of teens who said they had taken narcotic painkillers more than 40 times also reported heroin use.
In addition to these numbers, the students who reported recent use – within the last 30 days – were also more likely to report heroin use. This study confirms that non-medical use of opioids, especially more frequent and recent use is a robust correlate for heroin use.
Lead researcher Joseph Palamar, an assistant professor of population health at New York University, said, “The more times a teen uses non-prescribed painkiller pills, the greater the risk he or she is at, for becoming dependent on the drug.” He also added that people who become addicted to painkiller pills often start using heroin because of its low cost and easy availability.
Need of the hour
The researchers believed that the greater odds of heroin usage stems from the frequency and more recent usage of non-medical opioids. However, further research is needed to help identify those adolescents who are at risk of both opioid and heroin use, or those who are in a transitioning phase. It is important to target future interventions into curbing such substance usage, especially among teens, as they belong to the vulnerable population. Moreover, opioid users should be given special attention so that they don’t resort to heroin use or become an addict.
If your teenage child is battling prescription drug abuse, please seek medical help. The Florida Prescription Drug Addiction Helpline can guide you through the recovery process and connect you to the best addiction treatment centers in your area. You may call our 24/7 helpline at 866-292-3211 or chat online for further information.