The untimely overdose deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sage Stallone, and many others make headlines.
The sad fact is that for every Michael, Amy, Whitney, Phillip and Sage there are thousands of others whose deaths don’t make the front page. Every day thousands of young people are struck down in their prime while under the influence of addictive substances. Because the results of toxicology tests are slow in coming if reported at all, the cause of many “accidental” deaths is ever known. In the case of minors, the cause of death is almost never revealed. If we are unwilling to acknowledge or speak about the real cause of death, others will surely suffer the same fate.
Wired for addiction
Addiction is most frequently contracted at a young age, before the human brain is fully developed. Metaphorically, it’s been said that teens are “all gas and no brakes”. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for good judgement, affect regulation, deductive reasoning, and discernment is usually not fully developed until age 26. Furthermore, the brain develops front to back, from the reptilian part of the brain toward the frontal lobe, where the executive functions occur. Executive functions include critical thinking, analysis, and postponing gratification, in other words, skills that help us make life-protecting decisions. Just as young brains are wired to learn, they are also wired for addiction. According to Bertha Madras PhD, Professor of Psycho-biology and Chair of the Division of Neuro-chemistry at Harvard Medical School, “Exposed 14 year olds are six times as likely to acquire addiction”. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “One out of every four exposed children under the age of 17 will develop a dependency”.
Addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate
As with many other diseases, some people are less susceptible, but there is currently no scientific way to predict who has immunity from addiction. Adding to the challenge, addiction is a disease which carries an unfair stigma. This stigma reflects on family and friends, and often leads to avoidance of honest discussion and disclosure. This avoidance helps no one; in fact, it hurts us all. People suffering from addiction aren’t of lower moral character or intelligence; no one chooses addiction. Children of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are susceptible.
Twenty-three million addicts and rising… what are we doing wrong?
Many believe that teaching “harm reduction” is prevention. Nothing could be further from the truth. This misguided approach might make sense if the disease wasn’t ready to randomly strike six out of ten exposed students. But, it is. Today’s collective wisdom purports that telling students to “make good choices” is enough to protect them from addiction. It is not. Furthermore, another mistaken notion is that supervised alcohol consumption or use of “soft drugs” by minors is acceptable. Too many parents condone a certain amount of teen alcohol and drug experimentation in their homes. While doing so protects intoxicated teens from causing auto accidents, it doesn’t protect their brains from the disease of addiction.
More treatment is needed, but treatment is not the solution
It’s time for addiction to come out of the shadows. Addiction is preventable, but only if we have the will to confront it directly. Who among us doesn’t know someone with the disease of addiction? Silently ignoring them or their pain doesn’t help. Until we confront addiction where it usually begins, with students aged 10 to 15, we will continue to see lifelong suffering, and premature deaths.
There is hope for people who seek recovery, but treatment comes with a very steep price tag. Unfortunately, the majority of people who need treatment either don’t seek it or can’t afford it. Estimates of untreated addiction are as high as 82%, and the best estimate for recovery without relapse, even after multiple attempts, is only 10%.
It’s time to shift strategy
Continuing to focus 98% of our national drug control resources on law enforcement, intervention, and treatment isn’t the answer. After a 40-year “War on Drugs”, more than 3,000 Americans are still dying from unintentional overdose every month. It’s time to invest in and commit to preventing addiction. Trying to eliminate the supply of addictive intoxicants is a fool’s errand. As long as human beings seek altered states of consciousness, there will be a supply of intoxicants to achieve that end.
Let’s stop teen exposure to addictive substances
Addiction is 100% preventable. If preventing children from contracting a debilitating disease that often leads to premature death isn’t our top priority, why isn’t it?
To find out how you can help prevent addiction where it almost always begins…
with teens, contact us.