Julie Sneider
View from the Waiting Room

Troubling trends seen in teen drug use

By - Jul 12th, 2010 04:00 am
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Courtesy Curtis Gregory Perry via Flickr

Angela Raettig’s tragic death from a heroin overdose in November 2005 was a shocking wake-up call to many suburban parents, educators and others who were in denial about teenagers’ easy access to dangerous drugs in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Raettig was a 17-year-old teenager from Cedarburg who was found dead the morning after a night of partying and shooting up with her friends. The circumstances surrounding her death remain a stark reminder that teenage alcohol and drug abuse occurs in all communities — poor urban neighborhoods, quiet rural towns and quaint affluent suburbs like Cedarburg.

Sadly, the problem appears to be getting worse. A recent national study by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the MetLife Foundation uncovered noticeable increases in teens’ use of alcohol and drugs in 2009. The Partnership said the data marked a reversal in the “remarkable, sustained declines” in teen drug and alcohol abuse over the past decade.

Last year, 39 percent of American teens reported using alcohol in the past 30 days — an 11 percent increase over 2008. Teens’ use of Ecstasy soared 67 percent and marijuana use jumped 19 percent in 2009.

The 2009 national data also found that more than two-thirds of teenage girls think it’s OK to use drugs to help deal with problems at home; 52 percent of teenage boys agree that “drugs help you relax socially” and 41 percent of male teens think parties are “more fun” when drugs are involved.

The national Partnership report didn’t offer results by state. But the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s latest “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” of high school students reinforces Wisconsin’s reputation for being a state of heavy drinkers, with teens being no exception in that category.

The Youth Risk survey, which the DPI takes every other year, found in 2009 that 25 percent of Wisconsin high school students reported binge drinking, meaning they consumed five or more drinks in a row at least once during the past 30 days. Wisconsin’s percentage of teenage binge drinkers is higher than most states, DPI says.

Photo courtesy Abbey Christine via Flickr

Meanwhile, 41 percent of Wisconsin teens reported having at least one alcoholic beverage over the past month; 34.2 percent reported having tried marijuana and 41 percent reported having taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s consent.

The state’s 2009 survey did offer some hopeful signs. For example, from 2001 to 2009, there was a downward trend of students who said they used pot; from 2007 to 2009 there was a “significant decrease” in teens who said they used Ecstasy at least once; and the percentage of students who said they were given, offered or sold illegal drugs on school grounds fell from 28 percent to 21 percent between 1997 and 2009.

But despite those few bright spots, Dr. Fredric Steiger and David Poehlmann of the Huiras Center in Mequon sense no noticeable decline of teen drug and alcohol use.

Steiger is a child psychiatrist and medical director of the Huiras Center, which offers alcohol and drug abuse assessment and an intensive outpatient program for teens and young adults. The four- to six-week, after school program uses evidence-based treatments that focus on getting and keeping patients sober and off drugs.

The center opened in 2006 after philanthropist and entrepreneur Ralph Huiras donated the funds for its creation in response to Angela Raetting’s death. The center is operated by Columbia St. Mary’s Inc., parent of St. Mary’s Hospital-Ozaukee in Mequon, where Angela was pronounced dead.

Poehlmann, a substance abuse counselor at the center, says  the national Partnership survey finding that more teens view drug and alcohol use as an acceptable problem solver is not at all surprising. That attitude is common among the patients he counsels at the Huiras Center.

But even scarier is the continuing shift in preference for harder drugs among local teens, with heroin now much cheaper and easier to get than in the past.

“When I started out in my practice years ago, I was treating kids for using marijuana. Now that’s almost passé,” says Dr. Steiger. Some kids still prefer marijuana, but many more cut right to using heroin because it’s readily available.

Steiger, who frequently gives talks to parent and community groups, drives home the message that parents still have the most influence over whether a son or daughter starts using drugs or alcohol. He implores parents to start talking to their kids about the dangers of substance abuse when the kids are still in grade school. This advice may sound basic, but it’s true: Parents should watch for negative changes in their teen’s attitudes, habits, grades and friends — all indicators that the teen is involved with alcohol or drugs.

Too often he hears parents say they were suspicious early on that their son or daughter was making poor choices but looked the other way until the teen was in crisis. Dr. Stieger advises parents to follow through on those early suspicions.

“My personal observation from talking to parents and community groups is that we still have a tremendous level of denial in our society,” Dr. Steiger says. “Sometimes the denial goes so far that I see parents first get an attorney to try to get [legal] charges dropped against their adolescent and then, second, they’ll try to get treatment.”

Courtesy dreamofstreets via Flickr

Despite the discouraging trends in teen drug and alcohol use, Dr. Steiger and counselor Pohelmann remain optimistic. Both see what can happen when troubled teens and their families get the necessary treatment to learn how to make positive changes and healthy choices.

And they’re hopeful that the lessons learned from Angela Raetting’s story will save many more lives.

For those with questions or concerns about a young person’s use of alcohol or drugs, the Huiras Center offers a hotline at 1-800-457-6004.

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