Opening the conversation about prescription drug abuse

Michelle Castillo lived what she thought was a normal life with a husband and a family. She never thought prescription drug abuse would affect her family, let alone her 15-year-old son.

While in middle school her son had a run in with some students and they all tried spice, a synthetic form of marijuana. Castillo keeps an open relationship with her son who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Following the incident in middle school things went back to normal. At least she thought.

“I thought I was good; I made all the right precautions,” Castillo said. “I thought I was covered.”

Teachers often commented that the tall, clean-cut high school sophomores usually do not fit the bill for stereotypical user. But Castillo knows there is no specific type of person that is vulnerable to substance abuse.

School officials told Castillo they would give her son a pass since he had ADHD but she wanted no part of any deals. Her son needed to learn about the consequences that come with having unprescribed drugs. Castillo watched as her son was arrested and processed. Then to make matters worse, cocaine residue was found in the bag containing the Xanax.

“It was an important experience to let him know that there is no way of knowing what you are getting from some kid at school,” she said.

Because of the recent events in her life Castillo has recently began studying psychology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Her studies have led to become an intern at United Neighbors In Drug Abuse Defense (UNIDAD).

While UNIDAD deals with other drugs like marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs is becoming a problem and their effort to educate the community about them is becoming larger.

Vianca Vieyra, a prevention specialist with UNIDAD said misuse of prescription drugs usually comes down to the lack of knowledge in the community surrounding appropriate use and disposal of medications.

“It’s the fact that prescription drugs are readily available in our community and it’s not so much with the intention of being abused but it has just become a part of our culture for us to share medication, to take more than we’re supposed to or self-medicate,” she said. “When our youth see that example it’s a lot harder for them to understand the consequences of sharing medication.”

Vieyra encourages all parents to educate themselves and begin a dialogue about prescription drugs with their children because someone else might be doing so already. 

A National Emergency

In October the United States declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Armando Talamantez said the spike in opioid and prescription pain medication addiction usually begins with a painkiller being overprescribed and abused. Which in turn leads the user to develop a dependency on the drug.

In the case of opioids, users can find a similar relief in heroin when they are taken off a prescription.

“When the doctor doesn’t prescribe it (opioids) anymore and they can’t find it on the streets, heroin is the next best thing, which is about 40 times stronger than morphine itself,” he said. “Now, these brand-new opioid addicts are taking heroin and it comes as a shock to their system, which is when the overdoses happen.”

Talamantez confirmed what Castillo said in saying drug addiction does not correlate with any specific demographic, leaving all communities vulnerable to spikes in addiction rates. However, precautions are being made to ensure less instances of abuse take place overall.

The DEA has now set a domestic monitoring program which is a database that shows by patient how much medication has been prescribed and what their history is, that way doctors can gauge how much and for how long they should prescribe certain medications.

Martha Gutierrez, a prevention specialist with Behavioral Health Solutions said prescription drug abuse is not only about pills. In 2016 one-in-10 teenagers from seventh to 12th grade reported misusing codeine cough syrup. While the opioid crisis in the Northeast part of the United States has taken much of the national headlines, Gutierrez said prescription drugs such as Xanax and Vyvanse continue to be misused by the population, particularly youth.

Disposal of Drugs

One of the most effective ways to combat the flow of prescription drugs on the black market is to dispose of drugs responsibly.

Talamantez said the public should practice caution when disposing their unused or expired medications. UNIDAD has helped in the effort with and has 30 boxes throughout Hidalgo County where people can go and drop off prescription medication with no questions asked.

“If you’ve been prescribed any medication you need to make sure that you either use all of them or dispose of them properly,” Talamantez said. “Sometimes people throw unused medications in the trash where someone can get to it, or flush it down the toilet or down the sink where it gets into the water system.”

Town Hall Meetings

Vieyra and UNIDAD use town hall meetings to educate the public about the impact prescription drug misuse in Hidalgo County.

Recently at a church in Alamo about 25 people gathered to learn about the misuse of prescription drugs. Another event in La Joya was held for roughly the same amount.

Maybe a town hall meeting would have helped Castillo learn about prescription drug misuse before her son was arrested. Being an intern and attending the town hall meetings have definitely opened her eyes more.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I thought my village was solid,” she said. “Turns out that my village is a lot bigger than just my family, it includes their school, their community and if they’re not all on board I can’t be as effective as a parent.”