Teen Xanax Abuse Is Rising
BALTIMORE – Drug use among teens during the summer often goes unnoticed. It’s when school starts and students fall asleep in class, swap pills in the hallways, and fail tests that the truth becomes apparent.
This school year, addiction experts say they expect an onslaught of teens addicted to Xanax and other sedatives in a class of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines, or “benzos.” Many teens view Xanax as a safer and more abundant alternative to prescription opioids and heroin, with similar euphoric effects.
But addiction experts warn that the pills children take, often found in the medicine cabinets of their parents or grandparents, can be just as deadly as opioids, especially when taken in combination with other drugs. drugs or alcohol. And it is much more difficult to get rid of this habit.
Like any addictive substance, Xanax when used early increases the risk of addiction later in life. According to the 2016 United States Surgeon General’s Drug and Alcohol Report, nearly 70% of teenagers who try an illicit drug before the age of 13 will become addicted within seven years, compared to 27% of those who try an illicit drug for the first time after the age of 17.
At national scale, teenage prescription drug abuse dropped dramatically over the past 15 years, according to the results of a survey released in December by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last year’s results indicate that about 4% of high school students abused prescription painkillers, a sharp drop from 2004, when nearly one in 10 teens abused opioids.
In fact, a growing percentage of high school students — at least 26% of seniors in 2014, up from 5% in 1976 — are abstaining from all substances, including alcohol, marijuana and tobacco, according to a historical analysis of survey data released in July.
Even so, addiction practitioners say they are seeing an increase in the number of young patients who are addicted to Xanax. Many take large daily doses of the drug, sometimes in lethal combinations with opioids and alcohol.
Substance abuse treatment centers are “the tip of the spear,” said Sharon Levy, director of adolescent substance abuse treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital and lead author of the adolescent drug use study. “We see things first. So, I’m not surprised that the spike in Xanax use isn’t reflected in national data yet.
“Teenage benzo use has skyrocketed,” Levy said, “and more kids are being admitted to hospitals for benzo withdrawal because the seizures are so dangerous.” At the same time, she says, far fewer children are seeking treatment for prescription opioid addiction.
“When I ask them if they use opioids, they say, ‘No. I wouldn’t touch the stuff.
Marc Fishman, an addiction psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said benzos are rapidly supplanting opioids as the leading prescription drug of abuse among the teenage patients he sees in centers Mountain Manor Treatment in Baltimore and other Maryland locations. And many of them are extreme high-dose users, he said.
Like opioids prescribed for pain, benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety eventually stop working, requiring users to take higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. Kids who can’t get the pills at home buy them off the dark web or whip up designer versions of benzos in their bathtubs, he said.
People with mental illness are at much higher risk of developing an opioid addiction, and Fishman said the link between mental illness and benzos is even stronger.
Three FDA-approved drugs are available to treat the symptoms of opioid addiction: buprenorphine (most commonly sold as Suboxone), methadone, and Vivitrol, a long-acting injectable drug that blocks the high effects of opioids and alcohol .
But no drugs exist to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with benzodiazepine addiction. Instead, patients usually enter residential treatment where a specialist gradually tapers them off. If stopped too quickly, benzodiazepine withdrawal can lead to seizures and even death.
For people who overdose on opioids, Narcan is widely available and can easily be administered by first responders, friends, and family members to block life-threatening opioid respiratory depression. A similar drug, flumazenil, can block respiratory depression from benzodiazepines, but it is rarely available outside of hospitals.
The growing abuse of Xanax and other benzodiazepines among high school students and young adults in recent years is primarily a result of more and more pills becoming available, Levy explained.
As more and more adults are prescribed Xanax, Valium, Ativan and other benzodiazepines to calm their nerves and promote sleep, “we create these vast reservoirs that children can find,” she said.
The other problem, she says, is that teenagers think benzos are safe because their parents use them. Lots of kids say they don’t take the pills to get high; they take them to feel normal, Levy said. “Some patients even ask me to prescribe Xanax so they don’t have to buy it illegally. They think it’s good for them.
“That idea alone — that something is safe, beneficial, or medical — has started many epidemics in the past,” Levy said. “So my colleagues and I are watching this with concern.”
Easy to like
Melissa Ellis, who grew up in Baltimore in what she described as an addiction-prone family, loved Xanax from the first time she tried it. “I noticed this new guy I was dating kept falling asleep, so I asked him what he was taking. He told me it was Xanax and gave me a handful of bars [the pill form with the highest dose]. I had never heard of it before. But as soon as I tried it, I knew it was for me.
“It takes away everything that’s on your mind that’s bothering you and everything that hurts you feeling, and before you know it, those feelings are just gone.”
Melissa was then 15 years old and had just entered high school. Today, she is 24 years old and struggles to take care of her 3-year-old son. She says she is determined to overcome her addiction to Xanax and become drug free except for the depression medication she has been taking for over a decade. Otherwise, she said she could lose her son.
The first time Melissa tried to quit Xanax, she was four months pregnant. She managed to get through her pregnancy without relapsing. “But the day after my son was born, I told my friend at the hospital to bring me some. And I started all over again.”
Melissa also started injecting heroin. “The two drugs are made for each other,” she said. “What one doesn’t have, the other has. With the drugs [heroin], the high does not last as long as Xanax. So I was more into the Xanax.
But after she started combining the two, she overdosed and her mother found her passed out on the floor one day. It was then that she first arrived at Mountain Manor.
Melissa detoxed from both drugs, spent two weeks in residential treatment, and started taking Suboxone to ease her opioid cravings. She also took outpatient classes and stayed sober for a year.
“I got so close to my son back then,” she said wistfully. “Everything was better. I was doing so well. But I started hanging out with old friends and relapsed on Xanax.
Now she’s back in Mountain Manor, trying again. She hopes to leave treatment by the end of the week and move into a nearby mother and child sober living facility. For now, his mother takes care of her son.
“It’s really hard,” Melissa says. Xanax withdrawal may cause irritability, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, tremors, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms. And unlike opioid withdrawal, which usually lasts about a week, it can last for months.
“The treatment is scary all around. It’s good when you’re here. You can’t go down the street and meet your dealer. The scariest part is when you get back there.