Surveys by the Newtown Prevention Council reveal a great deal about substance use and abuse by young people in Newtown, from cigarette and vaping habits to alcohol, marijuana, and opioids. Because surveys can miss key issues, the NPC follows up surveys with student interviews. It is the response following the most recent survey that has Health District Director and NPC Co-chair Donna Culbert and local physician Dr William Begg concerned — and which should be of concern to parents, caregivers, and all residents. (See “Health Officials Concerned About Xanax Abuse Among Newtown Youths,” The Newtown Bee, December 22, 2017.)
What was not addressed, according to young people whose input was solicited, is the uptick in abuse of the drug Xanax (alprazalom) by that population. Often prescribed to offset symptoms of anxiety, Xanax is abused in high doses to achieve an enhanced state of calm. The highly addictive drug can be fatal, though, especially when combined with alcohol or other drugs. Whether legally prescribed or obtained illegally, health experts here and across the country consider Xanax abuse to be a burgeoning problem.
Teenagers and young people have always been at risk for experimenting with drugs. It can be viewed as fun, or a response to peer pressure. They are curious, and they are, in their eyes, immortal. Using drugs may be seen as rebellion, or as a brief adventure. But the abuse of alcohol and drugs speaks to a desire to retreat from reality, to self-medicate in order to avoid emotional and/or physical pain.
Pinpointing drugs of choice is the first step in addressing the needs of the young people, and the NCP surveys and interviews are invaluable.
It may be time for yet another survey, though; something is awry when increasing numbers of youth turn to drugs, prescribed or otherwise, because anxious feelings seem insurmountable. What is the root of anxiety? Is it sad memories or does it stem from personal relationships? Is it family issues? How does homework figure into feelings of anxiety? Is it fear of the future? Is it social media attention or inattention? Is it social interaction or lack of it? Is pressure to perform scholastically and/or athletically compounding daily stresses?
More importantly, do young people feel they are being taught to recognize anxiety triggers, and the coping skills to address anxiety?
How adults model dealing with life’s ups and downs is critical to the well-being of the young people with whom they interact. It is the responsibility of adults to provide young people with the tools they need to recognize and face the myriad emotions that can seem overwhelming. Education on the dangers of drugs needs to be combined with education on means of achieving states of calm and relaxation without abusing Xanax or similar drugs. Young people must be reassured that uncomfortable feelings are normal; and know the healthy options and people to whom they can turn in troubled times.
Newtown is home to yoga and exercise studios, mental health programs, support groups, art therapy, religious leaders, medical professionals, teachers, and more, offering safe alternatives to combat anxiety.
An epidemic of Xanax abuse is something to be anxious about. Proactively heading it off is our challenge.