The percentage of Clark County 10th-graders misusing prescription medications may have declined over the last decade, but local teens are still using opioids and dying from overdoses.
In the last three years, 17 Clark County youth have died from opioid overdoses. Historically, overdose deaths were higher among young adults, those 22 to 25 years old. But in recent years, more of the deaths have been among high-school-age students, said Adiba Ali, an epidemiologist with Clark County Public Health.
“The age groups are getting younger,” she said.
Ali was among a panel of community experts who spoke about opioid use among local youth at Prevent Coalition’s spring meeting Thursday afternoon. The panel included Ali, a clinician, a prevention intervention specialist and a school resource officer.
Misuse of prescription pain killers has declined locally among 10th-graders, dropping from 9 percent in 2006 to 4.5 percent in 2016, Ali said. But when 10th-graders were asked about their lifetime misuse of prescription drugs — not just whether they’ve used in the previous 30 days — the trend is reversed, increasing from 6 percent to 8 percent, she said.
Denise Livingston, a prevention intervention specialist for Educational Service District 112, said she’s seeing an increase in high-schoolers mixing codeine cough syrup with alcohol, as well as sharing oxycodone pills. Drug and alcohol counselors in the schools are seeing an increase in the number of positive urine tests among students, she said.
Vancouver Police officer Gerardo Gutierrez, who works as a school resource officer at Mountain View High School, said the last three drug incidents he’s handled involved opioids. In each case, the student had drugs prescribed to a family member.
He’s also noticed an increase in “Triple C” use, which is the slang term for over-the-counter cold medication Coricidin Cough & Cold. Students steal the drug from nearby stores and take the pill in massive doses — 13 to 16 pills at a time — for a hallucinogenic effect, Gutierrez said.
Students are always trying something new, he said.
And young, developing brains make teens prime candidates for forming addictions, said Jim Jensen, a drug and alcohol counselor at InAct, a treatment center in Portland. The prefrontal cortex is the last to develop, and it’s responsible for the suppression of impulses. With an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, Jensen said it makes perfect sense that so many adults can trace their addictions back to adolescence.
That’s why, Jensen said, it’s important to focus on early intervention in addition to prevention.
“We should be throwing ourselves into the breach when it comes to adolescent and young adult substance abuse,” he said.
The panelists agreed that addressing misuse early, and working to prevent substance abuse through education, are important. Even minor substance misuse among teens should be taken seriously, Jensen said.
“We don’t ignore a heart murmur and wait for a heart attack,” he said. “We intervene.”