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May 13-17 is National Prevention Week and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Pontotoc County Drug Free Coalition (PCDFC) and the Brandon Whitten Institute for Addiction and Recovery at East Central University are encouraging everyone to take an active interest in the welfare of the state’s young people.

That welfare is especially critical when it involves activities that could be risky, harmful or even deadly.

“Youth suicide, underage drinking and prescription drug abuse should concern all of us,” said Holli Witherington, director of the Brandon Whitten Institute at ECU and media advocacy chair for the PCDFC. “It is time for us to come together, step up, and say these things affect everyone.

“It is important to have a collaborative effort of parents, community members, leaders, faith organizations and others, working together to prevent these issues. The statistics are staggering and they must change.”
From 2003-2009, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Oklahoma youth age, 10-24. “Current depressed mood” and relationship problems were the two most common factors related to these deaths.
Overall, deaths due to suicide across all age groups in Oklahoma are increasing, jumping from 567 in 2009 to 618 in 2010. Oklahoma ranks 13th nationally in terms of suicide rate, according to Witherington.
An estimated 90 percent of people who die by suicide, regardless of age, have a diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse disorder.
“Suicide is absolutely preventable,” Witherington said. “We want people to know help is available and there are folks you can talk to.”
Communities are encouraged to consider building a program for suicide preventions, whether the emphasis is on reducing stigma, bringing awareness or highlighting referral sources.
In Oklahoma, anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – a free, anonymous 24-hour hotline. The number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Oklahomans can also call 211 for help.
Youth are bombarded daily with alcohol advertising that promises popularity, success, excitement and fun by just drinking the right beer or alcoholic drink. But the consequences are rarely depicted.
“Thousands of young people die each year from alcohol-related car wrecks, suicides, homicides, burns and drowning,” said Witherington. “Alcohol use is also associated with juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, sexually transmitted diseases, reduced academic achievement and increased high-school dropout rates.”
In Oklahoma, the average age of first use of alcohol in Oklahoma is about 13 years old. Nearly 40 percent of all Oklahoma high school students say they are regular drinkers and 22 percent are binge drinkers. Seventeen percent say they have driven when drinking, and 27 percent have ridden with someone who is drinking.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that youth who use addictive substances before age 18 are six times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem as an adult than those who waited until the legal age of 21. For the teenage brain, which is still developing, alcohol can be especially damaging.
A National Institutes of Mental Health neuroscientist, who specializes in studying the adolescent brain, said he tells teenagers “if they’re doing drugs or alcohol that evening, it may not just be affecting their brains for that night or even for that weekend, but for the next 80 years of their life." This is because the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision making doesn’t fully develop until young adulthood (between the ages of 21-25). So often if teens are drinking, it is while the brain is still developing.
Progress has been made in Oklahoma, especially in the area of the statewide social host law, also known as “Cody’s Law,” which imposes fines or jail time for adults or minors who provide a location for kids under age 21 to drink alcohol.
Alcohol education programs within Oklahoma schools and efforts to involve primary care physicians in screening for alcohol abuse are also under way.  In fact, all Oklahoma high schools have AlcoholEdu available to them at no cost through a partnership between the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Both nationally and in Oklahoma, prescription drug abuse is on the rise. Perhaps even more frightening, though, is the number of fatal overdoses that have accompanied this trend.
In 2010, Oklahoma had the 4th-highest unintentional poisoning death rate in the nation, the vast majority of which involved prescription drug abuse. That same year, Oklahoma also had the 9th-highest rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers in the nation, with the number of fatal drug overdoses more than doubling over the past 10 years, to 739 in 2010.
State autopsy statistics show that the most prolific killers are the prescription painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone, often in combination with the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam.
Many people may think prescription drug abuse impacts primarily adult populations, but the fact is that more and more young people are abusing these substances, said Hawkins. Nearly 22 percent of Oklahoma 12th graders say they have used prescription drugs without a doctor telling them to do so once or more in their lifetimes and nearly 10 percent had done so in the past 30 days (2010 Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment).
Young people may perceive prescription drugs as being “less harmful” than other drugs, but they can be every bit as harmful, and deadly, when not taken as prescribed and used by someone other than for whom they were prescribed.
To obtain prescription drugs, youth most often get them from home medicine cabinets, or from other family members and friends. And, for the second year in a row, more teens said prescription drugs were easier to buy than beer.           
“It seems like our teens aren’t listening to what adults say, but they are,” she said. “Clear communication about the negative effects of alcohol or prescription drugs, as well as about parental expectations, can significantly decrease substance abuse in teens.”
For more information or referral services, call the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services’ “REACHOUT” hotline at 1-800-522-9054. You may also visit the Pontotoc County Drug Free Coalition’s website at or contact Holli Witherington at (580) 559-5815. 

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