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ON THE SCENE: Dealing with, identifying addiction

November 28, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

We have a problem. It's called substance abuse. The primary substances of concern by county health officials, members of the Essex County Heroin and Opiate Prevention Coalition, and members of the Prevention Team are tobacco, alcohol and opiates.

On one level, our opiate abuse rates are far less than many suburban and urban areas across the state. That's not good news as our overdose rates involving opioids have more than doubled in the last six years. Today, statewide opiate abuse rates are nearly seven times higher than they were in 2010. However, when it comes to heavy drinking and alcohol abuse, we blow past the state and national average having among the highest rates of heavy and binge drinking in the state.

According to the New York State Department of Health, substance abuse contributes to 41% of our population dying prematurely. There are other factors, of course, high rates of obesity (30% of our population), smoking (23%), heart failure, suicide and death by violence.

Article Photos

Bob Rose and Marlene Burrell pose with Zachary Randolph, director of clinical services at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center, on Nov. 21 at the Lake Placid Middle/High School.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

On Thursday evening, Nov. 21, the Lake Placid/Wilmington Connecting Youth and Communities and St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center of Saranac Lake joined forces to present a public forum on substance abuse at the Lake Placid High/Middle School auditorium.

The presentation addressed how drugs impact our system and why youth are especially at risk. Furthermore, they taught people how to identify a person with a substance abuse problem and help them survive an overdose.

While the turnout was modest, the scale of the problem is not, and the information provided was engaging and robust. A big message was that substance abuse cuts across social and economic differences as well as differing levels of education.

No better example is the challenge faced by former Essex County District Attorney and recent candidate for the Supreme Court Julie Garcia. In the early 2000s, while then handling drug cases with the Suffolk County DA's office, Garcia learned that her mother and sister were addicted to painkillers. Ultimately, Garcia's mother died of a heart complication linked to opioid abuse. Within a year, her sister had died of a fentanyl overdose leaving behind three young daughters, two of whom Garcia subsequently raised.

According to Zachary Randolph, director of Clinical Services at St. Joe's, two primary factors leading to drug abuse are environmental and biology. When the mines in the town of Moriah closed, the citizens of the region took a substantial economic hit with those working the mines being hit the hardest. Widespread poverty and the depression that followed the closure was a factor that Garcia believes contributed to her mother and sister turning to pills to relieve their emotional pain, pills that soon became addictive.

The three most abused prescription drugs are opioids, used to treat pain, sleep disorders, and anti-anxiety medications sedatives such as Ambien, Valium and Xanax, and stimulants such as amphetamine, dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate used to treat attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders. According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 5% of those aged 12 to 17 and over fourteen percent of people aged 18 to 25 misused drugs in 2017.

Randolph pointed out that by 12th-grade, two-thirds of adolescents have tried alcohol, half of the students in high school have reported trying marijuana, 40% have tried smoking cigarettes, 20% tried prescription drugs, and that youth under age 21 consume 10% of alcohol sold in the United States.

For young people, the home environment can lead to addiction. If a child's parents, other older family members or peers misuse alcohol or use drugs or break the law, that can significantly increase their potential of having future drug problems. Another environmental factor is that 18.4 % of Essex County youth between ages 16 and 24 are "disconnected," neither working nor in school, a rate that's 50% higher than the state average.

We have a culture that more often than not reaches for a pill for even modest levels of pain, thus signaling to young people taking pills is OK. Another factor is its accessibility. One of the leading sources is the rarely locked bathroom cabinet that provides youth easy access to drugs. Some people pretend to be a prospective purchaser of a home, and while touring the property for sale, raid the bathroom cabinets.

A third factor is low self-esteem, which can be driven by problems in school, bullying, not having a meaningful occupation, disappointment in one's appearance as compared to others, and envy of others who seem to have marvelous lives on social media.

On the biology side of the problem, Randolph described that marijuana as being slow acting, especially if swallowed, but if smoked, it enters the bloodstream much faster. He said the quicker a drug can enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, the faster the high, but also the shorter the high lasts setting one up for wanting the stimulant again sooner. Randolph said that opiates, which dissolve in liquids easily, can thus reach the brain quickly, even more so if injected into ones' veins. He added that a danger of purchasing marijuana on the street is not knowing what's in it; it may, more often than not, be laced with a stimulant.

As the brains of youth are not fully developed, the danger of using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is acute. Randolph said the earlier young people start using substances, the more likely they'll have abuse problems later in life. The last part of a teen's brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, known as the rational part of the brain. Indeed, it's not fully developed until a person is about 25. This is the part of the brain that develops good judgment and awareness of long-term consequences.

Young people primarily operate with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain. Without the brake of a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, youth tend to take lots of risks, as well as herd together for a sense of safety, exemplified by a group of girls or boys hanging out together in a schoolyard. Bad for kids are helicopter parents who hover over them or lawnmower parents that remove every obstacle in their path. Better is providing kids access to good role models, opportunities to take measured risks so they can learn their limitations, and being available to them when they have questions about any issue.

"This was great," said Marlene Burrell. "I loved Zach's picture of a youth's brain. More people should attend these presentations. We need to learn about this as the problems associated with addiction affects us all. Learning how to use Naloxone to address an overdose was excellent as was the importance of staying with the person ready to treat them again if need be. I had no idea that you could overdose again when the treatment wears off and that it might be twice as quick. I also learned how important it is to secure the medications in your home."

Bob Rose shared that he lost his only son to heroin. He learned the importance of being aware of the changes in one's kids go through and to not just shrug that off as kids being kids; there may be something wrong.

"I can look back and now see what was happening with my son," said Rose. "I didn't have the education to ask myself, 'Why is my son so emotional? Why is he changing? Why is he being foggy and stuff, and he can't hold his job in high school?' He was using drugs, and I didn't see it. Educating parents is my big takeaway. I don't want to see another parent lose their kid the way I did. Addiction can happen to anybody; it can happen to anyone of us and our loved ones."

"People with addictions need something meaningful to do," said Burrell. "They shouldn't be left alone. They need to know they can make a difference."

"The disease of addiction is the disease of connectedness," said Randolph "The quality of people you surround yourself with in all stages of life matters."



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