By Frances M. Harding, Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
I don’t need to tell parents with young adults that the holiday season will be here before we know it. That would not be considered breaking news. However, I do have an important message that I hope will help you and your family enjoy time together this holiday season and for years to come: The holidays provide an excellent opportunity to talk to your young adults—about the devastating effects of opioid and prescription drug misuse.
Believe it or not, your adult children will listen, as long as they feel you are approaching them from a place of love, support, and, most of all, an open line of communication.
The statistics are staggering. In the United States, an average of 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. Nearly 2 million people have a pain reliever use disorder, and more than 600,000 have a heroin use disorder (according to 2016 data). In 2015, more than 33,000 people died of overdose deaths involving prescription opioid medications and/or heroin—the highest number of deaths in U.S. history. That’s comparable to deaths due to motor vehicle crashes.
There is good news to share. Prevention works. Opioid deaths are preventable. And you have a powerful and important role in preserving your family’s health and well-being.
You have many opportunities to engage your young adult in conversations about the impact of the decisions they will make—including when taking them to see colleges or attending a Parents Weekend—and winter break is no exception. When your young adult is home for their winter break, talk with them about their successes and experiences in school, both what they have enjoyed and what has proved challenging. You could bring up news stories they may have heard about, such as recent alcohol-related deaths at fraternities, as a way to broach this topic in a way that resonates with them and can open up a discussion about the health and safety issues around the use of opioids.
Let them know a large percentage of heroin use follows misuse of prescription drugs. Tell them you are aware that heroin use is rising among people between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Our national data tell us that the sharing of prescription medications among friends and family accounts for 54 percent of nonmedical opioid use, so having a conversation about this issue couldn’t be more appropriate or important.
Let your young adults know that you want them to have a long, happy, and successful life, and that using heroin or misusing prescription opioids could permanently derail their dreams and plans for the future.
You can also go a step further and talk to others who can play a role in prevention. For instance, speak with other parents, or advocate for prevention efforts at your young adult’s school or university. College campuses strive to create health supporting environments in order to support student success. On the home front, you can ask your family physician or dentist to discuss the dangers of opioids during your young adult’s next physical exam or doctor’s appointment.
At SAMHSA, we’ve come a long way in our work preventing alcohol and substance misuse. We’ve had great success in reducing the rates of tobacco, crack cocaine, and alcohol use over the past 30 years. Working together, we will have the same success in reducing opioid misuse as we have had with these other substances. There is no “silver bullet” to eliminate the opioid crisis, but we know that we can turn the tide through our collective efforts.
Family conversations about the consequences and dangers of misusing prescription opioids or using heroin will help our college students and young adults make healthy choices for years to come.
Website: SAMHSA’s National Helpline
1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-487-4889 (TTY)
Free and confidential information in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing substance abuse and mental health issues. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Frances M. Harding serves as Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of alcohol and drug policy.