Although it’s more clear how opiate addiction forms in the body, where the prescription drugs come from and when the “epidemic” became an issue in Ridgefield, what remains most nebulous is who the drugs are affecting and why a person would begin taking them in the first place.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi believes the opiate problem in town is just as much a youth issue as it is an adult crisis. But perhaps what’s most challenging is to locate the drug user who goes unnoticed — nameless, ageless, helpless.
“The people you know about who are using drugs aren’t as big of an issue as the people you don’t know about who are using them,” Mr. Marconi said. “We can’t treat and help the drug user who we don’t know anything about, but they’re plenty of them out there.”
Town officials have began to better understand who is at risk and why they might have started using drugs in the first place.
Average of 12
Mr. Marconi said the average when experimentation substances like alcohol and marijuana begins is 12 years old.
“We don’t want to dismiss the adult problem in this town, but the average age of experimentation is 12, in the middle school years, and parents have a tough time accepting that or choose not to believe it,” Mr. Marconi said. “As a young adult goes through the high school year, that problem gets worse and worse and the number of people gets higher and higher. Parents would rather not see the issues. They are unaware of what’s out there.”
Police seem to agree that the problem is not age-specific, but that teens are more at risk.
“But they have more people looking out for them,” said Detective Brian Durling of the Ridgefield Police Department. “Someone who’s older has to go about seeking treatment by themselves and often that’s why they don’t stop using.”
Mr. Marconi said kids today can be classified as the “Resume Generation,” who look great on paper, but suffer from a tremendous amount of pressure.
“These kids are programmed through life at such a young age to play two or three sports, have a major and minor chosen, participate in extra curricular activities, and take AP classes,” he said. “It’s all to get the perfect resume and get into a good school.”
He added that the town must become aware of the negative affects of piling pressures on its youth and, most importantly, begin to look at students “as human beings that need our help to develop the emotional part of their brain,” not as a product of a system.
Clinical psychologist Carol Mahlstadt agrees and believes youths turn to drugs “to numb how they feel” and an abuse pattern develops if they like that feeling of nothingness.
“Ridgefield kids are wrapped up in performance — academic, athletic, social — and they don’t know how to cope with these feelings,” Mrs. Mahlstadt said. “They’re experiencing a lot of mixed emotions over a short, intense period of time.”
Compounding all these pressures is the immediacy brought on by technological.
“Everybody has a phone and everyone sees everything,” Police Captain Tom Comstock said. “The normal pressures — the academic, the athletic, the social — have always been around for quite some time. What’s different now is the addition of technological pressure and how instant things can happen.”
The rippling effect pressure has on this generation goes beyond substance use and abuse — it has fractured the trust teens have for adults in the community. Mr. Marconi admits it won’t be easy to mend the wound.
He believes today’s youths have become a “we can handle it ourselves generation,” who view their parents and their friend’s parents as less qualified to help.
“These kids are very introverted when it comes to talking to adults and expressing how they feel not just to their parents,” Mr. Marconi said. “Instead of being able to talk openly with their family, they opt for peer resolution and counseling and that concerns us a great deal.”
Furthermore, he said school counselors, town officials and parents have all noticed the town’s youth have become desensitized to tragic accidents that have occurred happen in the last couple of years.
For example, when an RHS student committed suicide in the summer of 2011, just weeks after another studied died in a durnken driving accident, the school provided several grief counselors for students to talk about how they were feeling about the death of their peers
The results surprised officials.
“Not one person came in for counseling,” Mr. Marconi said. “That alarmed the professional community here a great deal and that’s when we realized this generation was seeking peer counsel, handling the issues amongst themselves and that needed to be resolved.”
Even students were unaware of a problem until recently.
“I honestly didn’t know there was a huge prescription drug problem until this year and that’s because now, I hear stories about kids taking ADD medication to study or take their SATs,” said Dani Blum, a junior at RHS and vice president of the school’s debate team.
However, performance isn’t the only motivating factor behind use. The other prominent, and more alarming, cause she cites behind drug abuse, is students’ apathy towards life.
“Kids not caring if they live or die,” she said.
In a recent article she wrote in the school’s magazine, the Tiger’s Roar, Ms. Blum cited pressure to get into college and to live up to family’s expectations of “attending a prestigious university” as another reason behind the increased prescription drug use amongst her peers.
In that article, an anonymous student confided that she estimates one of every eight students at RHS abuses at least one type of prescription drug.
“I think everyone took Adderall for finals last year,” the source said. “I got it from a friend who was prescribed. He offered it and I was like yeah, sure, whatever.”
Self esteem problem
Another anonymous male student said that depression is the root of the problem and added that kids intentionally turn to hard drugs to reduce depression.
“It’s a self-esteem problem,” he said. “99% of the people who do hard drugs know what they’re getting into, but they don’t care.”
Although depression sounds like an acceptable explanation as to why teens take prescription drugs in the first place, the answer seems to be more complex, stemming from a generation’s resistance to adult guidance and societal pressure and resulting in indifference.
“There’s a lot of depression and that comes from loss and grief, but I wouldn’t say that’s the root cause of the problem,” said Mahlstadt. “Kids tend to make a lot of unhealthy decisions and it’s not exactly easy to explain why.”
While Adderall abuse exists at the high school, methamphetamines aren’t as addicting, nor as deadly, as synthetic opiates such as OxyContin and Percocet — the drug of choice amongst older users.
According to Joe Sullivan, president and CEO of Midwestern Connecticut Council of Alcoholism (MCCA) there are five major reasons why people try drugs — financial burdens, relationships ending, academic performance, unemployment, and behavioral characteristics. However, there isn’t a list long enough to explain all drug users’ thought processes.
For prescription drugs, specifically synthetic opiates, it starts with an over-prescription from an injury, he said. The addiction to them is not age-biased, he said, although he sees people in their early 20s as the largest group of admitted patients in his residential treatment facility.
“Approximately 50% of the people admitted in here for prescription drug abuse are in their early 20s,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Around 10 to 15% of his patients are late teens and the remainder are patients ranging from their mid-to-late 20s into their 40s.
“Everyone has their own story to tell” as to why they got addicted, he said. “The circumstances vary from person to person.
“This part of the state has among the highest rates of substance abuse in the country and that’s including alcohol abuse, marijuana and methamphetamines. Underage drinking and pot smoking is always the starting point. It leads down a very dark road that is difficult to navigate out of.”
Ginger Katz, the founder of Courage to Speak Foundation, who lost her son Ian in 1996 to a drug overdose, knows this all to well.
“For Ian, it started in eighth grade with cigarettes, a sip of beer and pot to start,” she said.
He began using prescription drugs and heroin in college for “lots of reasons — to hide pain and to feel better. Students say they want an altered state instead of who they are or what they feel.”
Ms. Katz shares her son’s story to help prevent similar tragedies from happening to other families all over the country. She urges everyone, not only parents, to help treat those suffering from addiction.
“People are only concerned about what affects them, well, the reality of this is that drug addiction is affecting everyone, even the people who aren’t using,” she said. “Addiction isn’t some fad, people don’t grow out of it.”
This is the third article in a four-part series about prescription drugs and heroin use, abuse and addiction in Ridgefield. The fourth article next week will discuss what the community can do to solve the crisis.