BlogRx is a content series developed by the Prescription Drug Safety Network to discuss the prescription drug safety landscape. In recognition of National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, the first iteration of the series focuses on demystifying the common misconceptions surrounding drug and alcohol use and misuse among young people today. This blog post features interviews with Walmart Regional Health and Wellness Director Lisa Smith and Florida Department of Education Health Education Coordinator Rikita Patel.

In this blog, Lisa and Rikita answer our questions about the myths of prescription drug abuse and the holistic perspective our communities must embrace to take on this epidemic effectively.

Myths: The Source of the Medication

LISA:  I think probably the biggest myth among parents is where their teenagers are getting access to prescription drugs.  Many parents don’t realize that teens often obtain these medications from friends and family members.  It is extremely important for parents to recognize this and then evaluate what is in their house, in grandma’s house, and in their friends’ houses, etc.  Parents should securely lock up any addictive medications they are prescribed.  In cases of acute medication for a temporary issue (such as a broken ankle), the pain may be resolved before all of the medication is used.  Properly disposing of the remainder, whether it be through DisposeRx or local take-back sites, is an important part of prevention that doesn’t occur to most parents.  There is no need for extra opioids to be left in our medicine cabinets where others might come across them and choose to misuse them.

RIKITA:  A lot of teens think that because prescription drugs come from a pharmacy, they’re not going to be harmful and addictive. Often, they get these prescription drugs from their parents or family members. I think schools and pharmacies can contribute to spreading awareness to parents and educating them about proper disposal mechanisms for excess medications.

Educators: Taking A Prevention Approach

LISA:  I think successful prevention education in schools is about awareness and education.  If students truly grasp the risks associated with these medications, then hopefully they’ll make better decisions so we can stop prescription drug abuse from becoming multigenerational.  Another key element for prevention occurs at the moments an individual is prescribed and provided with the medication.  Young people and their parents need to know that they have a voice in these interactions.  They should feel empowered to become an educated consumer of healthcare.  I would encourage them to ask questions, make sure they realize the risks and side effects, and also learn tips such as potential instances when they can substitute a non-controlled substance (such as Ibuprofen) instead of the prescribed medication.  The key for medical providers, shown by several studies now, is prescribing for the lowest dose for the shortest duration, while still sufficiently treating the patient’s injury or illness.

RIKITA:  Prevention education should be evidence-based, free of cost to school districts, and easily comprehensible by not only the students but also the teachers who are going to be facilitating the instruction. Additionally, youth risk behavior data can be very powerful in showing the need for prevention education in schools. Parents need to be informed of the local, state, and national trends on drug abuse among youth. This can be achieved through infographics, fact sheets, and other communication channels directly from schools.

Students: Advocating For Change

LISA:  I think sometimes the students can be the best at effecting change in their communities through positive peer pressure.  A teen who is armed with the facts and  understands the reality of the consequences is in a much better position to talk to others about it.  If some of their friends are less educated on the topic, or if they witness these behaviors going on, they can be powerful leaders in spreading awareness and discouraging risky choices.  Not only that, but also, if a student is informed about the specific resources available out there for substance use disorder, they can be very influential in terms of steering friends who are struggling towards getting help.

RIKITA:  Messaging that comes directly from students can be particularly powerful.  If they can communicate their knowledge and perspective on these issues in an effective way, such as through school groups, workshops, organized talks, I think this could really help rally the community to come together and take action.   When powerful messaging comes directly from the youth, it could also explore for an open and educated dialogue with their peers.

Parents: Equipping Them For Tough Conversations

LISA:  It is crucial for parents to, first and foremost, be honest about the prevalence of prescription drug abuse that  is affecting every community.  Then, it’s about having a frank conversation with their kids about the serious ramifications of this behavior.  It doesn’t have to be a lecture.  I think it’s like anything else, it needs to be an ongoing discussion.  Unfortunately, most everyone at this point knows of someone who has been affected by the misuse of opioids, so providing real-life examples and scenarios from a personal lens can help put it in perspective.  There are also plenty of resources online, including the CDC and DEA websites.  It has to be part of what we talk to our kids about, the same way alcohol and illegal drugs are something that we talk to them about.  Prescription drug abuse is the new conversation of this generation.

RIKITA:  Engaging parents is a very important component because these students may be learning best practices and prevention strategies at school, but then they go home and those skills and behaviors are often not reiterated from their parents.  The message will resonate more deeply if it is reinforced on all fronts.  But parents need to have adequate resources and information to address these issues knowledgeably.  I think there should be a toolkit that schools, districts, states can send to parents on how to talk to their teens about this sensitive topic.

All Hands On Deck

LISA:  Substance abuse is as widespread as it’s ever been and it’s non-discriminatory.  It’s affecting rural, it’s affecting metro, it’s affecting all socioeconomic tiers.  It’s going to take everybody coming together to solve this problem.  The government, schools, parents, teachers, students, the medical community, and even companies like Walmart can all work together to be part of the solution.  I think it falls upon all of us to help curb this in any way possible and I think the absolute best way you can do that is educating the next generation.

RIKITA:  There definitely needs to be a community-wide approach to this, including schools, parents, students, governmental and non-profit organizations, after-school programs.  It would also be extremely valuable for educators and districts to come together and share best practices. Substance use education must be part of health education and health education must be a required instruction.  Everyone should have access to data, resources, services and a platform for an open dialogue to combat this issue.

Lisa Smith is a pharmacist by education and has been in field operations and store operations at Walmart for over a decade, first in its Pharmacy division and now in Health & Wellness.  Her focus is on the associate and customer experience.

Florida Statewide Health Education Coordinator, Rikita Patel, operates out of the office of Healthy Schools at the Department of Education.  Her office falls under the Bureau of Standards and Instructional Support, which supervises health education, including alcohol and substance abuse instruction and prevention.  She is responsible for providing resources and technical assistance to the districts.