A few years ago, a teenager in my circle had surgery. Her mom joked that she was at home "taking the good pain medicine" and recuperating well. Today, our laughing about the pain medicine scares me to death.
In the past couple of years, there has been a dramatic rise in heroin addiction in the United States, and many point to the use of opioid pain medicines as one of the reasons. These strong medications are in my medicine cabinet. They may be in yours. And they are probably in the homes of most of your child's friends. The CDC says that throughout the nation, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills. As a parent, the numbers frighten me, and I have begun to talk to my children about the dangers of prescription medications. I hope you will, too.
Drug addiction counselors have thousands of stories of young people whose road to addiction began with an injury or surgery. The story usually goes something like this: A promising high school athlete is headed for a college career when an injury strikes. Surgery or treatment follows, often accompanied by narcotic pain medication. The medicine helps with the physical pain of the injury, but it also helps with the emotional pain of losing the life that might have been. So even after the pain from the injury subsides, the pain medicine allows an escape from the emotional pain. If someone doesn't intervene, the temporary relief turns into an addiction that must be fed--legally, illegally, by any means necessary.
The CDC says that 1 out of 4 people receiving long-term opioid therapy eventually struggles with addiction. Treatment takes months if not years and often addicts relapse many times before overcoming their addiction. Unfortunately, many don't live long enough to recover. In 2014, overdose deaths from prescription drugs and opioid pain medicines rose to nearly 20,0000 -- surpassing car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death in America.
Parents are always concerned about the availability of drugs in our kids' schools and the use of drugs in their social circles. One way we can help our kids face the temptation is to prepare them with strategies to turn down the opportunity to try drugs in the first place.
One strategy that is especially effective is at-home drug testing, according to J. Sándor Cheka III, executive director of the Addiction Prevention Coalition in Birmingham, though the reason might surprise you.
Cheka says that at-home testing is not a sign that you don't trust your teen. Instead, it gives your son or daughter a legitimate excuse when someone offers them drugs.
"It's a way for them to say, 'I can't because I'm going to get drug tested,'" Cheka said. Studies correlate early drug use with addiction, so delaying the onset of experimenting with drugs, if not preventing it altogether, is an effective way to prevent addiction.
Drug testing is also helpful because if your child tests positive, you can get them help a lot quicker, Cheka said.
Parents also need to talk to their children honestly and openly about the relational aspects of drug abuse. Cheka says that Christian parents are pretty good at having such conversations about sex, so the same kinds of conversations should be had concerning drugs and alcohol.
"We say, 'medicines are created for our good, but here's the problem with these types of things. Here's what the long-term effects can be.' Don't talk about physical harm but instead talk about what the relational aspects look like. Often kids are swayed by how drug abuse is going to affect relationships. In most cases, they're not going to die instantaneously from using drugs, but explain to them what can happen--they're less likely to make good grade, less likely to have meaningful relationships in their lives. They can grasp that," Cheka said.
Parents also should help children learn effective coping skills from an early age, Cheka said.
“Across the board what we are hearing from addicts is that some kind of traumatic life event drove them to try drugs,” he said. “As adults we think of trauma as death, divorce, maybe changing schools, but many kids are saying, ‘I didn’t make a grade on this test, so now I can’t get into the school of my choice and can’t have the career I always wanted.’ Or, ‘I don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend.’ These are things we have thought weren’t that big a deal, but these kids have no coping mechanism. They have nothing in their life they can grab hold of and realize it’s okay.”
That's where family discipleship comes in. We must help our kids see themselves through the eyes of Christ and understand that the evil one wants to steal not only their peace and joy but their very lives.
"Satan doesn't live in the light, he lives in the shadows," Cheka says, and if Satan can transform one young life into a shadow, he removes a light that could shine for Christ. As parents and church leaders, we can teach our children that hope and peace do not come from earthly sources like drugs, grades, or even relationships. Hope and peace instead come from Christ.
"Too many kids, from a fundamental spiritual level, have no hope. When one thing goes wrong their entire value comes crashing down. Unless they have hope outside themselves, which we know is Christ, they feel like their whole lives are falling apart," Cheka said.
To read more about the opioid addiction crisis in America, click here.
To read the full article about what parents can do to help children avoid the trap of addiction and to see additional resources on healing from addiction, click here.
Year ago, I stopped by my aunt's house on my way home from the University of Alabama. My aunt's elderly mother-in-law was with her and told her I had just driven in from Tuscaloosa. Miss Mac's eyebrows raised, and Aunt Pat started to laugh, knowing that the older lady has misinterpreted the reason for my time in Tuscaloosa.
When I was young, it was common for kids to tease others by throwing up the locations of Alabama's state mental hospital, Bryce in Tuscaloosa, and Georgia's state mental hospital at Milledgeville. As an adult, I wonder how those kids knew of these facilities. Perhaps because someone they knew had spent time in one of them?
Society's awareness of mental health issues and our ability to treat them have advanced tremendously since the mid-1800s when states established state hospitals for those afflicted with mental illness. However, in our churches, the issue of mental illness still carries a powerfully negative stigma.
Zelia Baugh, executive director of psychiatric services for Baptist Health System in Birmingham, said, “There is still a societal stigma when you have a mental illness diagnosis. People don’t want to have mental illness or the stigma associated with it so they want to deny it or treat it on their own.” (emphasis added)
What a true statement. No one asks for mental illness to be part of their life experience. And it can be very hard to be honest about the struggle, especially among families of faith. Baugh noted that the stigma of mental illness can be especially strong in churches, where pastors are reluctant to talk about it and families fear the judgment of others if they are open about their struggle.
“If you’ve got diabetes, cancer or heart disease everybody’s all about making sure that people are praying for you so you have an instant support system,” Baugh said. “It’s very different when you are talking about mental health issues.”
As disciples of Christ, our first call is to love--Love God and love our neighbors. Loving those affected by mental illness is hard, but as believers, we aren't called to the easy life. How can we love those afflicted by mental illness? Here are some tips from Steve Trader of Pathways Christian Counseling:
Tips for Those Who Have Family, Friends with Mental Illness
May we all be more compassionate to those who suffer and love them as Christ loves us.
I am a regular contributor to The Alabama Baptist newspaper, and I also write and edit for several religious, business and educational outlets through my business, McWhorter Media and Marketing.
One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is the opportunity to share the stories of others with a larger audience. I love to do that!
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