Students face deadly effects of prescription drug addictions
Part 2 of 2
Published: Friday, December 6, 2013
Updated: Friday, December 6, 2013 11:12
For Part 1, click here.
As his dependence on prescription drugs increased, Miami student Alex, whose name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality, found himself struggling to foot the bill of his expensive habit. The average price of pills — $1.20 per milligram — would easily break his scanty college student budget. But with his addiction nagging at the corners of his head, he asked his dealer for the next best, and cheapest, thing: heroin.
“I was heavily addicted to Xanax and heroin,” Alex remembers. “At first, all I could think about was scoring dope and getting high.”
Alex is not alone. The National Institute of Drug abuse estimates that in the U.S., 9 million people suffer from prescription drug addiction, while 200,000 people suffer from heroin addiction. Board certified psychiatrist at the Miami Student Counseling Services (SCS) Dr. Joshua Hersh said he treats such addictions every day.
“I have seen hundreds of people, during my career, both [at SCS] and at my private practice, with dependence,” Hersh said. “About half of their addictions to prescription drugs started when a doctor prescribed them often after a minor surgery. The other half happened when people were experimenting.”
While addiction may indeed be growing, recovering addict Tyler, whose name has also been changed to protect patient confidentiality, believes it lurks seemingly unknown among the student body.
“The crazy thing about prescription drugs is that your best friend or co-worker can be an addict and you will never know,” Tyler said. “People I attend classes with would be shocked to find out I am a recovering painkiller and heroin addict.”
While Tyler contends that drug abuse and addiction does not discriminate, Hersh argues that some are more vulnerable than others.
“Drug addiction is a disease,” Hersh said. “For someone with a predisposition to addiction, you are prescribed that, there is a chance you will get an addiction to that.”
Predisposition is identified after an examination of a patient’s genetics and family history, Hersh said. Addiction, like many other diseases, can follow a lineage of generations. If a family member develops an addiction, his kin are more susceptible.
But even if a user is not predisposed, once dependency or addiction occurs, the habit is hard to break. Tyler remembers the agony of his addiction and seeking to break it.
“Being addicted is torture,” Tyler said. “You wake up every morning feeling ill and have to get your fix before doing anything, whether it is class or eat.”
And, like Alex, Tyler often found that fix in a much more dangerous place — heroin.
“Prescription abuse is a major problem because it is very easy to spiral out of control and upgrade to heroin,” Tyler said. “It takes a lot of time and resources to accept recovery once you are hooked.”
A 2012 study conducted by NBC News that investigated the addiction histories of about 100 heroin users found that Tyler and Alex’s instances are not uncommon. In fact, every single heroin user NBC interviewed had arrived at the drug in the same way: they started with prescription drugs, especially opiates.
Hersh said the upgrade to heroin is an easy one. Expensive prescription drugs do not look as appealing to a drug that can give a better high for a smaller price — $3 to $10 a bag.
“This is how heroin addiction starts: People are swallowing pills. Half of them are getting them from physicians initially. They build up a tolerance to that. They end up snorting the pills because that bypasses the liver, it is absorbed well,” Hersh said. “Snorting the pills becomes very expensive, so they often resort to snorting heroin, which is now a lot cheaper. The next progression is injecting heroin.”
While most users never imagined resorting to heroin, as soon as they become dependent on pill popping, Hersh said the progression to the illegal street drug is very likely.
“A lot of people say, ‘I will never get addicted to heroin. I might mess around with a little Vicodin but I will never use heroin.’ Well it doesn’t start out that way. It starts out by people getting addicted to pills,” Hersh said.
And once a user is hooked on heroin, without treatment, there usually is no return.
“The average lifespan of an IV heroin addict after developing the addiction is about 17 years, because of chances of overdose, Hepatitis and other complications,” Hersh said.
The Ohio Department of Health reports that, in 2011, 44.7 percent of unintentional drug overdoses in Ohio resulted from heroin. Oxford is particularly familiar with these kinds of deaths.
According to the Butler County coroner’s records, from 2011 to 2013, eight people died after overdosing from heroin or opiate ingestion in Butler County. Last December, 21-year-old Miami student Andy Supronas died of a heroin overdose.