Educators Look For Ways To Fight Teen Opioid Addiction

Sep 13, 2016

This month, WBOI is looking at teen mental health in Northeast Indiana. WBOI’s Lisa Ryan reports on teen drug abuse in Indiana at a time when opioid abuse is a growing problem in the state.

Fort Wayne residents Michelle Merritt and her husband say they suspected their teenage son was abusing drugs. But it wasn’t until the then-17-year-old overdosed in February 2015 that they realized how much help he needed.

“I look back now, and even when we realized there was a problem, we thought that if we just took the right steps and kept it quiet and kept it private, that we could handle it as a family,” Merritt said.

Merritt says she wishes they hadn’t tried to hide her son Derek’s addiction, which is why she and her husband are speaking out now.

“If they had told me Derek had cancer, or diabetes, or a heart condition, I wouldn’t have kept it quiet," she said. "I would have sought help."

"It is something we should all talk about because it affects everybody."

Derek’s father Jason Mutzfeld says drug addiction is viewed differently than other addictions, like tobacco or alcohol. Mutzfeld thinks that’s because of the illegal nature of drug use.

“People attempted to shame us into silence, saying this is not something we should talk about,” Mutzfeld said. “It is something we should all talk about because it affects everybody.”

More than four in 10 Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, according to research from Kaiser Family Foundation.

Credit Kaiser Family Foundation; Provided by Deb McMahan

One of the reasons that opioid abuse is so prevalent is the myth that prescription drugs are safe, says Deb McMahan, the Allen County Health Commissioner. Teens might be prescribed painkillers for sports injuries or medical procedures, and then share those drugs with their friends. Some might take prescriptions from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

“Fifty-four percent of teens think that they’re safe because they’re prescribed by a physician, they’re safe. And of course we know that’s not true,” McMahan said.

Sometimes drugs look like prescription medication, but they are actually manufactured illegally. Some of those illegal medications are laced with even stronger additives like fentanyl or, more recently, carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer.

Doctors in Indiana prescribe an average of 109 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people.

McMillen Health in Fort Wayne aims to prevent drug abuse by educating teens about the dangers of opioids. Holli Seabury is the CEO of McMillen. She says it recently developed opioid education curriculum, in early 2015. The pilot program was developed with money from the American Medical Association for students in 6th and 9th grade.

“Those are what we call transition years, where youth are transitioning from one school to another school, and when we see those transition years, that’s where we see a lot of substance abuse take place,” Seabury said.

Students might make new friends during the transition, and those friends could lead them to drugs.

Michelle Merritt says her son was buying drugs from his friends, and it was easy for him to find the opioids that caused him to overdose.

Seabury says painkillers and opioids are easy for teens to find because they’re often overprescribed. This is especially true in Indiana. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors in Indiana prescribe an average of 109 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people, which means some Indiana residents are prescribed more than one painkiller prescription.

Credit IMS, National Prescription Audit; Provided by Deb McMahan

Seabury hopes to prevent drug abuse before it even happens by expanding McMillen Health’s opioid education program. Seabury says many teachers had no idea how to teach students about opioids.

“This is such a new epidemic,” Seabury said. “Young people entering into opioid abuse is fairly new. It’s fairly recent, and so education hasn’t really caught up with that yet.”

Seabury says she expects to see more opioid education in schools, including the program McMillen Health developed. Expanding the program requires more money though. Seabury estimates it could cost about $300,000 to create a website, videos and more interactive technology for the expansion.

She says it wasn’t cheap to create the curriculum, but it’s far less costly than treatment once a person is addicted.

"It is a roller coaster ride. I never thought we would go through the things we've been through in the last year and a half."

Michelle Merritt and Jason Mutzfeld say it’s personally cost about $120,000 to get their son help.

“It’s not as if we suddenly had $120,000 of cash sitting around waiting to be spent on treatment,” Merritt said. “Neither one of us is made of money, that’s for sure,” Mutzfeld added.

Their insurance has covered a lot of their son’s treatment, but not everyone has insurance or a supportive family.

Merritt’s message to parents is to not give up on a child struggling with addiction. She wants everyone to know that addiction isn’t a character flaw.

“It’s not something to be ashamed of. It is a roller coaster ride. I never thought we would go through the things we’ve been through in the last year and a half,” Merritt said. “But it can get better, and you (have to) hold on to those days.”

Their now-19-year-old is in treatment, and his father says it’s important to remember to have empathy for his son’s journey, even when it’s hard.

“You have the sober person, who is a wonderful person who you love, and the addict, who sometimes you just want to wring their neck,” Mutzfeld said.

Their story isn’t over. Derek is clean now, but just like other physical illnesses, relapse is possible. For now, he and his family will take it one day at a time. 

Elsewhere in this series, WBOI looks at suicide prevention, juvenile justice, and teen mental health in students transitioning to college. We’ll also learn more about how to provide help for a teen, or anyone, who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. You can hear this series Tuesdays in September on 89.1 WBOI on online at wboi.org.