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Teens, young adults and opioids: What parents need to know about prevention and intervention

Guest Opinion


Dr. Ron Larsen


Teens and Young Adults: opioids in Idaho

By now we’ve all seen or heard the headlines: The U.S. is in the midst of a national opioid crisis that claims the lives of 91 Americans each day – one person every 16 minutes. Overdose deaths due to opioids, which include commonly prescribed pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine, are now responsible for more deaths in this country than car accidents or firearms. This epidemic isn’t just happening to other communities – it’s reached Idaho and is threatening the health and well-being of our friends, neighbors and loved ones. Drug overdose deaths in Idaho more than doubled between 2006 and 2014 from 111 to 217. More than 200 Idahoans died from overdoses in 2015, with most of those deaths attributed to prescription painkillers and other opioids.

Sadly, this epidemic has taken an outsized toll on young people in our communities. Young adults are among the biggest misusers of prescription drugs in Idaho – including opioid pain relievers – and the rate of deaths from drug overdose among 12- to 25-year-olds in our state has more than doubled since 1999. Most people use drugs for the first time when they are teenagers, and drug use is highest among people in their late teens and twenties. Early intervention is critical to preventing long-term addiction issues, and parents are often the “first responders” when it comes to helping their children avoid or overcome a substance use disorder. Fortunately, there are steps that parents and other adults in a young person’s life – including coaches, teachers, and mentors – can take to help prevent opioid addiction or intervene when misuse becomes a problem.

I encourage parents and other responsible adults to educate themselves about the risks of opioid use and how to step in and take action if a young person needs help. Here are some tips for prevention and intervention that can help save the life of someone you care about:

Address the issue: Opioids are a necessary and useful part of treatment for some medical conditions, but these powerful drugs come with a high risk of misuse and dependency. Talk to your kids openly and honestly about the dangers of opioid misuse, and make sure all medications in your home are stored safely and securely.

Understand the risks: Many teens and young adults first use opioids prescribed by their doctor after a common medical issue, such as a sports injury or wisdom tooth surgery. Talk to your provider about whether your child truly needs to take opioids or if there are lower-risk options available for addressing pain during recovery from an injury or surgery.

Spot the signs: Common indicators of substance use include general changes in mood and behavior. A person who is actively misusing opioids may seem drowsy and distracted, and movements may be slowed, and speech might be slurred.

Find appropriate support: Opioid dependency is a chronic condition that requires medical intervention. If your adult child needs help, look for a treatment program that incorporates medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Many of the most effective opioid treatment programs combine MAT with talk therapy and ongoing community-based services, such as peer support from individuals with personal experience living in long-term recovery from substance use.

For more information and tips on preventing or addressing opioid use disorder, visit

Ron Larsen, M.D., is the Chief Medical Officer for Optum Idaho. He is a board-certified psychiatrist and has practiced in Idaho for 10 years.


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