UNM Los Alamos

UNM-LA Student Coauthors Drug Addicton Article

UNM-LA Student Coauthors Drug Addicton Article

October 20, 2014

Call To Action: Drug Misuse Problem, Prevention, And Seeking Help

By Toshi Shiina, Leslie Hayes, M.D., and Erin Bouquin, M.D.

Drug addiction is widely spread and extremely hard to treat, but many people may think that drug addiction is not an issue in Los Alamos County. According to the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (YRRS) conducted by the New Mexico Department of Health in 2011, 5.2 percent of the youth (9th-12th grade) in Los Alamos reported using heroin while the New Mexico average was 3.2 percent.

These numbers declined somewhat in 2013 – Los Alamos: 3.1 percent and NM: 2.9 percent. However cocaine use increased from 6.7 percent (2011) to 8.3 percent (2013) in Los Alamos while NM average jumped up from 5.2 percent (2011) to 10.3 percent (2013). [1] Clearly, Los Alamos is not immune to the drug addiction epidemic in NM.

The brain is the organ that enables us to see, hear, taste, and feel. Chemicals known as neurotransmitters are mediating signals in the brain. One group of such chemicals is endorphins. Endorphins bind to opioid receptors in brain cells to cause pleasure, which is essential to the prosperity of species including human. Opioid pain relievers (also known as narcotics) such as fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodon, and morphine were found to suppress pain and are prescribed for pain management.

However, since opioids have pleasure-causing effects, they have a high addiction potential as well as side effects such as drowsiness and nausea.  Respiratory depression and even fatal overdose is possible as well. Overall, the drug-related problems were costing the US taxpayers $181 billion per year in 2004 [2] ($193 billion in 2007). In a sense, we all end up paying for drug addiction.

The YRRS survey data shows the strong positive correlation between painkiller misuse and heroin use among high school students. [1]  Most likely, students start to use prescribed opioid painkillers available to them, get addicted, and escalate into heroin. About 1/4 of current painkiller users reported using them for reasons not approved by the prescribing physician - to sleep, to cope with anxiety, and to get high, to name a few - according to the NM Community Survey conducted in 2012 by Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation.

[3] Over the last decade, throughout NM, nearly 30 percent of high school students consistently reported that they have persistently felt sad or hopeless, which is a precursor to depression. Such students are more likely to report suicide attempts, cigarette smoking, binge drinking, and illicit drug use. [4] What action can you take to prevent painkiller misuse?

Action Item #1 - Secure your medications. Saving unused prescription medications for later use is a form of misuse. Discard leftover painkiller pills. It is advised to lock all your medications in a safe not only to prevent teens from intentional misuse but also to protect small children from unintentional intake.

The following was an actual medical emergency. A parent with an infant was on opioid medication. When the parent took eyes off of the medication container for a brief moment, the infant grabbed the pill bottle. No pills were missing, but the infant must have ingested minute amount of powder attached to the bottle. Twelve hours later, the infant stopped breathing and had to be treated at ER. (The child was OK afterwards.) We must secure our medications.

Action Item #2 - Open and maintain communication channels. No diagnosis of mental health disorder can be made by a blood test or MRI imaging. So having an open communication with your children is the most effective way to detect the onset of mental problems and intervene. Also, one study shows that 80 percent of teens say their parents' opinions matter in their decision making. [5]  Ensure that your children feel safe and secure to talk to you as their parents. Listen to what your children have to say about their friends and school work. Share your thoughts on proper internet use, current events, drugs and alcohol. Having dinner together with all the electronics turned off is an excellent opportunity to exchange daily updates.

What if you or someone you care about is already taking steps toward drug addiction?

Action Item #3 – Seek help. Ensure your own safety and seek help. You may encounter situations that are hard to talk about with your friends or even within your family. The rule of thumb is not to be alone. Call 1.866.HELP.1.NM (1.866.435.7166) hotline for consultations. [6] The service is provided for free by the organization called Agora Crisis Center (ACC) hosted by the UNM, and is available 24/7. A trained peer counselor will compassionately listen to you and offer a referral service to appropriate resources if needed. You don’t have to be in crisis to talk to them. The ACC service includes help-line and online emotional support. They would love to listen to you regarding anything that’s on your mind.

There are medications and services available to help prevention and/or recovery process, but let us take the initiative with the most important action of all:

Action Item #4 - Do not misuse medications yourself.


[1] Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey

[2] Addiction Science, National Institute on Drug Abuse,http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/addiction-science-molecules-to-man...

[3] NM Community survey,http://www.nmprevention.org/Project_Docs/2013_Docs/SPE%20End%20of%20grant%20final%20report%202012.pdf

[4] NM-IBIS, https://ibis.health.state.nm.us/indicator/index/Alphabetical.html#Z

[5] “Parent workshop handout”, Leslie Hayes, M.D.

[6] Agora Crisis Center

Editor's note:Toshi Shiina is a premed student at UNM-LA who looked into drug problems in northern New Mexico, found some alarming statistics and wanted to share his findings with the community to raise awareness, so he worked with Leslie Hayes, M.D., and Erin Bouquin, M.D. to write this piece.