Substance abuse in kids on the rise, health experts share red flags to watch for

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Posted at 8:08 AM, Apr 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 08:08:35-04

TAMPA, Fla. — At the beginning of the pandemic, during times of lockdown, health officials saw substance abuse in kids level out and even decrease because of the lack of access to the drugs they had before.

“However they transitioned during that time to many utilizing prescription medication or other medications in the home,” said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, Pediatric Neuropsychologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Those were easier to hide from family members. Things are shifting now that pandemic restrictions have eased.

“As we’ve seen our kids emerge from the pandemic, from having those precautions put into place, the access to those substances is again happening,” said Katzenstein.

This is why doctors are seeing substance abuse increase again at an alarming rate.

Just last week, the Hillsborough County School District held a workshop to address the growing issues with students and substances to make sure teachers are trained to react.

Data shows that a percent of Hillsborough County students have tried cigarettes, vape products, alcohol, marijuana, and even cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough County School leaders to discuss students' mental health and substance abuse issues

Health officials believe a lot of this is related to the mental health effects of the pandemic.

“As parents recognizing and hearing our kids if they’re bringing concerns to us about depression, anxiety, stress, or another mental health condition so we can get them the appropriate treatment,” said Katzenstein.

Doctors say parents should watch out for these symptoms:

  • changes in sleep or appetite
  • changes in activity level
  • changes in friend groups
  • lack of motivation and engagement to complete school

“Also if you’re seeing more irritability or more fatigue and sleepiness, really again those changes in behavior that would be correlated with the type of drug they may be abusing,” said Katzenstein.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest parents should talk to their child’s pediatrician about screening for substance abuse.

“Seeking out substance abuse interventions in our community so we have some great interventions and supports available,” said Katzenstein.

“I do recommend to all of our families that they put a lock on all of the drugs in the home in a closet or in a cabinet where only the parent has the key so that our kids can’t be getting into that,” she added

Health officials say there are preventative steps parents can take like:

  • having clear communication
  • maintaining an open relationship
  • knowing where their kids are at all times
  • having conversations about what their kids are doing and what their peers are doing

“So is there any vaping involved? Is there another illicit drug that their peers are utilizing? Because then they’re going to be put in that situation to have that exposure,” said Katzenstein.

Experts also suggest parents talk to their children about how they should react if someone offers them drugs.

“What would you say, what would you do? So that they rehearse that in advance and they’re not put on the spot should their friends present it to them,” said Katzenstein.

“Hugely important for families to know what different vaping equipment looks like. It might be a pen, it might be a USB drive. All of those things can be also used to vape, so having a good communication with their kids in addition to checking out those things that they see in their backpacks to make sure they’re really what they’re supposed to be,” she added.

Doctors want parents to be alert and recognize that younger kids are using substances too.

“We start studying it as early as 10-14 years of age. So when we’re looking at substance abuse really younger and younger, our kids are having exposure to these illicit substances in their everyday environments and a lot of times parents don’t know or parents are suspecting it,” said Katzenstein.