A single pain pill – the opioid narcotic Percocet – launched a deep descent into heroin addiction for Zachary Dennis Gys. The talented student athlete from Lowell, Massachusetts, sprained his ankle at a high school hockey practice and took a Percocet – given to him by a classmate – to ease the pain.
“He got started with Percocet, 5 milligrams. That wasn’t enough after awhile,” says Louise Griffin, Zachary’s mother. “From there he went to OxyContin. The drug dealers told him – when OxyContin wasn’t available – that he should try heroin, because it would give him a better and quicker high.”
Despite forcing her son into treatment – and sustaining him through seven rehab programs in two states – Zachary often relapsed. Each time, his addiction grew worse and the family’s odyssey more frightening.
“I watched as this beautiful child morphed into this stranger that I could not recognize,” Griffin says. “He needed more heroin, he stole from me, he manipulated, he lied. I had to put deadbolts on my bedroom door. My bank account got drained. I have no jewelry left.”
Zachary made progress in Florida, where he had been drug-free for two months and enjoyed a new circle of friends committed to recovery. A month before his 22nd birthday, Zachary was hopeful when he called his mother from a sober living home, Griffin recalls.
“He had just gotten a job and on Day 60, he called me and said, ‘Mom, I’m 60 days clean. I’m doing great, I got a job.’ And on Day 61, he was dead.”
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Zachary’s accidental overdose from an opioid relapse mirrors the alarming rise of teen drug abuse and addiction. The dangers are portrayed in the new film, “If Only,” from the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and Millenium Health.
Set in Middlesex County, Massachusetts – a community hard hit by the opioid epidemic – “If Only” follows the lives of Isaac and Connor, best friends who develop a prescription drug problem. The teens experiment with painkillers from the family medicine cabinet, and get high at house parties where young people share a bowl of pills. One family seeks help for their son’s addiction; the other is in denial.
“If Only” ends with an aching scene from real life. Clutching photos of their loved ones, families gather in St. William Catholic Church to remember 57 young people, their lives cut markedly short by addiction.
“Prescription drug misuse and abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, and this film illustrates the danger this poses to youth today,” says Nicole Beckstrand, Vice President of Integrated Communications for Millennium Health, a California-based drug-testing company that co-sponsored the film.
To spread awareness of the problem, “If Only” parallels a public health campaign, Drop Them Off (http://DropThemOff.com/), which promotes safe use, storage and disposal of prescription medications.
An estimated one in six teens reports using prescription drugs to get high or change their mood, and most say they get the drugs from family and friends, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. The number of teens who misuse or abuse a prescription drug at least once increased 33 percent between 2008 and 2012, to about 5 million teens, according to the 2012 Partnership Attitude Tracking Survey.
Easy access to medicines, lax attitudes and few warnings from adults contribute to the misconception that prescription drugs are less harmful or addictive than other drugs, experts say. New research also suggests that the abuse of prescription opioids is a gateway to heroin use for many people (since heroin is typically a cheaper, more accessible opioid).
“I think the most important message is how quickly a young person can go from one pill to addiction, it can happen that fast,” says Griffin, whose son’s addiction followed the trajectory from prescription opioids to street drugs.
Every day in the United States, an estimated 114 people of all ages die from drug overdoses, and 61 of those deaths (53%) are due to prescription medications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The majority of deaths involve opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and methadone.
It’s a growing public health crisis, with a 146% increase in fatal drug overdoses between 1999 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury death in America – responsible for more deaths among people ages 25-64 than motor vehicle accidents.
New federal regulations that began in 2014 place tighter restrictions on potentially addictive opioid pain medications. Under the new rules, physicians can no longer phone in a prescription for hydrocodone combination products (hydrocodone + acetaminophen). Patients must see their doctor to obtain a new prescription every 90 days, and they need to bring a physical prescription to the pharmacy.
To keep opioids out of the hands of kids, the Drop Them Off campaign is reaching out to 6.1 million Twitter users, Beckstrand says. Actor Mark Wahlberg and other celebrities post video messages using the hashtag #DropThemOff, and the campaign website includes parent/teen conversation starters and guidelines for reducing access to prescription drugs.
“We wanted to take a grassroots approach to providing information about the problem, steps to safely use, store and dispose of prescription drugs, and materials that empower adults to initiate discussions with young people about the dangers and consequences of misusing prescription drugs,” Beckstrand says.
Since Zachary’s fatal overdose in 2013, Louise Griffin has become impassioned about preventing more tragedies. She’s working to reduce the stigma of addiction, so that more families seek help. And she started Zack’s Team Foundation, http://www.zacksteam.org/ which provides scholarships to send people to treatment; so far, the non-profit has funded rehab stays for 10 young adults, Griffin says.
Calling a child’s death from drugs “the loneliest thing a parent has to go through,” Griffin started a local chapter of GRASP, a bereavement support group. She also recruited the families who appear in the film “If Only” to share their loss (they braved a New England blizzard to appear in the film).
“I am sure that young adults are experimenting (with drugs), that most of them don’t think this is going to turn into a disease,” Griffin says. “When we think about prescription painkillers, we think of it as something that’s going to cure us, make us feel better. And these pills, when not taken correctly, will kill us.”
Resources for Parents & Teens
FREE DOWNLOAD: “IF ONLY”
Short film about the dangers of prescription drug misuse and abuse among young people.
DROP THEM OFF
Public information campaign to keep kids safe from prescription drugs. Includes tips for talking to your child about prescription drug dangers, and simple steps to safeguard your home and reduce access to opioid medications.
The Drop Them Off campaign is co-sponsored by the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, Millenium Health and The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ Medicine Abuse Project.
STOP MEDICINE ABUSE
Prevention campaign that addresses teen abuse of over-the-counter cough medicines. Includes a parent talk kit and other resources to help teens make smart decisions.
LEARN TO COPE
Online support for parents and family members with a loved one who is addicted to opioids. While Learn to Cope is based in Massachusetts and hosts meetings there, the website includes an online community forum, FAQs for treating opioid addiction and a section on realistic expectations for substance abuse treatment.
GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing)
Bereavement support group, with chapter meetings in 30 states, for families or individuals who have lost a loved one to substance abuse or addiction. The website includes information on how to start a chapter in your area.
TREATMENT eBOOK: HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT HELP FOR YOUR CHILD WITH AN ALCOHOL OR DRUG PROBLEM
Parent handbook on appropriate addiction care for teenagers, from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Includes how to pay for treatment, the role of family therapy and other topics.
PRINCIPLES OF ADOLESCENT SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER TREATMENT: A RESEARCH-BASED GUIDE
In-depth primer on the principles for effective drug and alcohol treatment for teenagers. From the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
FAMILY TIP SHEET ON RESIDENTIAL PROGRAMS
Addresses questions about residential treatment for a child with emotional and behavioral challenges. Published by Building Bridges, a national family support initiative.
ABOVE THE INFLUENCE
Helps teens stand up to negative pressures or influences. The site includes ways to help a friend with a drug or alcohol problem, and tips on making healthy decisions.
MUTUAL AID/SUPPORT GROUPS
Extensive list of mutual aid organizations, 12-step programs and other support resources
24-hour helpline operated by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
24-hour National Drug and Alcohol Abuse Hotline, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a confidential 24-hour hotline for anyone in crisis