Are teen drug users following adult examples?

February 05, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

The news last week about a significant increase in illicit dru use by teen-agers caught a lot of us by surprise; surprise because such news represents a striking reversal of the downward trend seen over the last several years.

But there it was, the bad news revealed in an annual nationwide survey of almost 50,000 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades: "Illicit drug use by teen-agers increased significantly between 1992 and 1993, driven by a dramatic rise in the use of marijuana and increases in the use of stimulants, LSD and inhalants."

Naturally, such news elicited some serious responses from Washington's heavy hitters.

Cabinet members, senators and drug czars all stepped forward to stress the "urgency" of the situation and to convene "a national meeting of experts in prevention and drug education to confront the problem of drug abuse by young people."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., went one step further and boldly emphasized "the need for immediate action in fighting both drugs and crime."

Excuse me. But, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.

Or to put it another way: It seems to me we've been down this road before. And that we always wind up back at the same fork.

Sure, it's a tough problem and one with no easy solutions. But in order to solve a problem one first has to look carefully at what is causing the problem.

And buried in the recent news account is, perhaps, a clue to the rise in teen drug use. It is offered by Richard A. Millstein, acting director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who said the increases "are in part the result of an erosion of anti-drug attitudes by youth."

When I read this a light bulb went off over my head. On my desk were copies of two magazines featuring cover stories on the rise in drug use by adults. So to speak.

"Beyond Prozac -- How Science Will Let You Change Your Personality with A Pill" is on the cover of Newsweek. And leading the New Republic is "That Prozac Moment," an article that looks at the anti-depressant pill's ability to turn an increasing number of Americans into "shiny happy people."

Prozac, it seems, is sweeping the country. In fact, the New York Times reported last week -- in a story headlined "A Washington City Full of Prozac" -- that the Washington State Board of Psychology has lodged a formal complaint against a psychologist in Wenatchee, Wash., for over-use of Prozac as a therapeutic tool.

Which brings us back to Richard Millstein's assertion that teen drug use is on the rise because of "an erosion of anti-drug attitudes by youth."

Could there be a connection between the explosion of inappropriate Prozac-taking among adults and the declining anti-drug attitudes among teen-agers?

It's quite possible, says Baltimore child and adolescent psychiatrist William C. Wimmer.

"There certainly is a similar kind of attitude, that idea of using drugs to feel better," Dr. Wimmer says. "Some adults use Prozac not for any specific clinical disorder but because they believe that one shouldn't have any of the common miseries of everyday life.

"And perhaps those attitudes filter down to children and adolescents . . . that attitude that one shouldn't have to struggle through anything, that one shouldn't have to work anything out psychologically; that there ought to be something -- whether it's pot or Prozac -- to relieve the angst."

And it is quite possible, Dr. Wimmer says, that while many adolescents do use drugs recreationally, many also use them as a form of self-medication. Marijuana, he says, is often used by teens to treat their depression.

Which, of course, is what Prozac does.

And that offers us, perhaps, another clue to teen-age drug use. Many psychiatrists and social scientists believe that depression is one of the underlying reasons young people turn to illicit drugs.

Dr. Peter D. Kramer, author of the best-selling book "Listening to Prozac," has said the title is a response to his patients telling him they'd learned more about themselves while on the drug. And his book ultimately poses the question, "Is it so bad to take something that makes you feel better?"

You could argue that the rise in teen drug use represents a youthful version of "Listening to Marijuana." Kids, it seems, sometimes really do look at adults as role models.

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