Dr. Nita Shumaker, pediatrician and president of the Tennessee Medical Association, is on a mission. When she is not seeing patients, she is spreading the word far and wide about the danger of opioid use and its impact on the young and old across the state of Tennessee and nationally.
"There were 64,000 deaths in the U.S. last year due to opioid use, and that number is probably underreported," says Shumaker. "People do not realize how addictive opioids are and that it takes very little to become addicted. We have a very serious problem. It's like a bathtub overflowing, and my goal is to stop the spigot."
According to a Live Science magazine article, a new study found that most American teenagers who abuse opioid drugs first received the drugs from a doctor. Looking at trends in the use of prescription opioids among U.S. adolescents from 1976 to 2015, researchers found a strong correlation between teens taking the drugs for medical reasons and then taking them later for "nonmedical" reasons. In the journal Pediatrics, study author Sean McCabe, research professor at the University of Michigan, observed findings that over the past two decades, the majority of nonmedical users of prescription opioids also used prescription opioids for medical reasons in the past.
"According to studies, 1 in 4 prescriptions for opioids is misused. They are not taken, given to somebody else or taken in a manner different than prescribed," Shumaker says. "Furthermore, 1 in 10 who take opioids are at very high risk because the drug hits a sweet spot because of how their brain is wired. Probably one of the most shocking statistics is that it's not the dose of opioids but the length of time you take them. If you take them for more than three to five days, the risk of addiction doubles. These medications have their place, but they are horribly dangerous. You may be that one person that it trips that sweet spot, and it can destroy your life."
Shumaker encourages parents to be vigilant with their teens about the opioid epidemic.
"Changes in behavior, in the friends they choose to hang around or their grades — pay attention," Shumaker says. "When teens are abusing drugs, their behavior may become erratic and they may become secretive. As parents and those who care about young people, we must place the highest priority on their health and well-being and stop being so concerned about invading their privacy."
Shumaker strongly encourages parents to get rid of old medications in an effort to keep them out of the wrong hands. The FDA says opioids can be flushed or crushed and mixed in with cat litter or coffee grounds and thrown away. There are also designated drop-off locations in the community. Additionally, if your teen has an injury, seek out other methods that can be used instead of opioids to manage pain. Taking opioids is like playing Russian roulette with your child's life.
"I don't think people in general, much less teens, understand the magnitude of danger opioids pose to their life," Shumaker says. "The new Fentanyl on the streets, which is often being illegally made, is so powerful if you touch it you can stop breathing. Police officers are now having to wear haz-mat suits when making drug arrests.
"This is an enormous problem. Almost no one is untouched by this epidemic. It is in the best interest of our community and future generations for all of us to pay close attention to what is happening with our teens. It is vital that we not forget that teens' executive function, which helps all of us make wise choices, is not fully formed until age 25. We need to be checking in on our teens and helping them make good decisions."
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.