*This article was originally published on Huffington Post. To read the original, click here.
Gene Siskel, the prolific film critic made famous by his thumbs up or down movie reviews, said that if you want a sign of the times, look no further than the movies. Movies about drugs in the seventies such as A Clockwork Orange, Mean Streets and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls told of the psychedelic drug craze and cultural revolutions; the eighties were about the drug trade like Scarface and Drugstore Cowboy; and in the 2000s Traffic, Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting told stories of the toll drugs take on communities.
And so it goes with teen party scenes in cinema, replete with beer pong, red solo cups, kegs, and boys getting with girls in pantry closets like moments in American Pie, Project X & Superbad. Too bad this milder and less dangerous form of the teen party scene is no longer the face of young adults experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
The vision for a movie’s portrayal of teen parties is slowly changing. Today, teens’ latest fad are pharm parties. The term gets its name from “pharmaceutical parties,” in which young adults raid their families’ medicine cabinets for prescription drugs (i.e. Percocet, Vicodin, Ritalin, Adderall, etc). Then at a party, the teens mix the prescription drugs in a bowl and everyone partakes in consuming an unknown mixture of the pills in order to get high.
Sometimes they are called “Skittle parties” and may also include Robitussin as in the case with “purple drank.” Nonetheless, the risks run high for teens and young adults who partake in this dangerous activity.
Though not enough evidence points to a widespread phenomenon related to pharm parties, the real issue is that abuse of pharmaceutical drugs amongst teens and young adults is quite prevalent. A 2013 study reported in U.S. News & World Report found that at least 1 in 4 teens has misused or abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime. In fact, “young adults using prescription drugs for a high is only slightly less common than marijuana use, but more common than drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.”
Still, pharm parties have been reported enough and cases of mixed drug overdoses seen by paramedics and in emergency rooms have raised red flags. According to Lock the Cabinet, an organization that posts facts and information about teen substance abuse, directors of teen drug programs have observed that “many in their care admit to having participated in pharm parties.”
The dangers, particularly at pharm parties, come from a cocktail of mixed drugs that may cause serious and unforeseen side effects. “Kids who must be rushed to the hospital after ingesting a cocktail of medications pose a dangerous puzzle to the ER staff who cannot identify which medications were taken and therefore what method of treatment to follow,” writes Lock the Cabinet.
“What would counteract one drug may lead to harmful effects from another.” Moreover, allergic reactions may occur and unintended side effects may creep up long after the pharm party. For instance, taking a drug when not needed or without any side effects from illness upsets the body’s natural balance and may lead to harm further down the road.
How did prescription drug abuse amongst teens become such a problem? Experts argue that the culture around prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs is a likely culprit. Prescriptions and OTCs have a culture of having non-harmful effects and are common in American society. “50 percent of all Americans take at least one prescription medication,” according to an article in Contemporary Pediatrics. And there is a whole generation of upcoming young adults who have legitimate prescriptions for Ritalin, Adderall and Xanax to treat ADHD and other anxiety-related issues. As such, “the stigma around popping a pill for any issue is nearly nonexistent.”
Despite this culture, if you read the label on an ibuprofen OTC drug such as Advil, it warns the user of possible stomach bleeding. That seems like a severe risk for an American to take to cure a headache. And still, most don’t know this is the case. A particularly interesting point is that the most commonly abused prescription drugs – opioids like hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone and codeine – “have the same addictive properties as heroin or meth.”
But the culture around prescription drugs and OTCs are winning the battle. When teens experiment with drugs, this culture suggests to them that pills will do far less harm than what are considered “street” drugs. “Popping an Adderall to help a student focus or throwing back a Xanax during a party seems safer than snorting a line of coke or shooting up heroin,” writes U.S. News & World Report.
“In reality, the consequences of overdose, death or severe allergic reactions are just as serious in comparison to street counterparts.” The report also puts some of the blame on parents. According to a 2008 study, 25 percent of parents believed their child taking a prescription pill was less harmful than taking street drugs.
Finally, the pervasive nature of prescription drugs makes them easy to come by. The CDC reports that 55 percent of prescription drug abusers obtained prescription painkillers for free from a friend or relative. High school and college-aged students who have prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin and Adderall have been reported to sell pills for extra cash at low prices. And with a large portion of American homes with medicine cabinets containing all kinds of prescription drugs at your son or daughter’s fingertips, one can see how easy it is for teens to throw a pharm party.
Parents are at the forefront of curbing teen prescription drug abuse. Here are ways to help:
- Be vigilant and aware of your teenage son or daughter’s activities inside and out of school. Parents are encouraged to form relationships with parents of their children’s friends, exchange contact information, and check in with these parents when their kids have shared activities.
- Parents are encouraged to form “WE CARE” groups which can host parties, after school activities, school dances etc. and develop parent pledges which support drug free events
- Talk to your son or daughter about the dangers of drug abuse – especially if there are OTCs and prescription drugs available in your house – and the harm of overdose. Just as getting behind the wheel after a few drinks is a danger to the individual and others, promote the same culture of awareness to your children for prescription drugs.
- Be aware of your child’s mental health and look out for signs of depression and aggression as red flags that something is wrong.
- Dispose of any old prescriptions, monitor your son or daughter’s prescriptions and OTCs in the house, and lock the medicine cabinet.
- Ensure there is a chaperone at the parties your son or daughter attends. Volunteer and trade off with other parents as chaperone to promote an inclusive environment. Do not rent motel rooms for your child unsupervised.
- When you go out of town, make sure you put an adult in charge of your teenager and check in with other parents in the community.
Since we are no longer living in the times of American Pie and Animal House – when alcohol was the prime fear a parent had for their child – it is important for parents to understand the culture of prescription drugs and be vigilant about protecting families and communities from harm. And with the holidays upon us, school parties and holiday themed events is a time for more vigilance. The key here is being educated about the issues and communicating concerns to children and loved ones.