Despite overall prescription drug addiction abuse dropping dramatically among adolescents over the past 15 years, addiction treatment centers across the country are seeing a surge in the number of young people hooked on Xanax, according to Pew.
addiction practitioners say they’re seeing a surge in the number of young patients who are hooked on Xanax. Many take high daily doses of the drug, sometimes in deadly combination with opioids and alcohol. -Pew
This increase has yet to be reflected in national data, which doesn't surprise Boston Children's Hospital head of adolescent addition, Sharon Leavy - who says that addition treatment centers are "the tip of the spear," and she is "not surprised that the spike in Xanax use isn’t reflected in national data yet."
Addiction specialists say they're expecting an "onslaught of teens addicted to Xanax and other sedatives," according to Pew - one of many anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines, or "benzos."
“Adolescent benzo use has skyrocketed,” Levy said, “and more kids are being admitted to hospitals for benzo withdrawal because the seizures are so dangerous.” At the same time, she said, far fewer kids are seeking treatment for prescription opioid addiction.
“When I ask them if they’re using opioids, they say, ‘No. I wouldn’t touch the stuff.’”
Like any addictive substance, Xanax when used early increases the risk of addiction later in life. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2016 report on drugs and alcohol, nearly 70 percent of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 will develop an addiction within seven years, compared with 27 percent for those who first try an illicit drug after age 17. -Pew
Johns Hopkins psychiatrist and professor Marc Fishman says that benzos are rapidly overtaking opioids as the primary prescription drug of abuse among adolescent patients seen at Mountain Manor Treatment Centers in Baltimore and other locations throughout Maryland. Many, he says, are extreme, "high-dose users."
Xanax and other benzos are incredibly addictive, while people with mental illness are at a far greater risk of addiction than the general population, said Fishman.
And while there are three FDA-approved medications which can treat the symptoms of opioid addiction, "no medicines exist to blunt the withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with benzodiazepine addiction. Instead, patients typically enter residential treatment where a specialist gradually tapers them off the medication. If stopped too quickly, benzodiazepine withdrawal can result in seizures and even death," according to Pew.
A cautionary tale
Pew highlights the case of Melissa Ellis, a Baltimore native who was immediately hooked on Xanax from the moment she tried it.
“I noticed this new guy I was dating kept nodding off so I asked him what he was taking. He told me it was Xanax and gave me a handful of bars [the pill form with the highest dose]. I’d never heard of it before. But as soon as I tried it, I knew it was for me.
“It takes away everything you have in your mind that’s bothering you and everything you feel that hurts, and before you know it, those feelings are just gone.”
Melissa was 15 then and just entering high school. Now she’s 24 and struggling to take care of her 3-year-old son. She says she’s determined to beat her addiction to Xanax and be free of all drugs except the depression medicine she’s been taking for more than a decade. Otherwise, she said she could lose her son.
The first time Melissa tried to stop taking Xanax, she was four months pregnant. She managed to get through her pregnancy without relapsing. “But the day after my son was born, I told my friend in the hospital to bring me some. And I started all over again.”
Melissa also started injecting heroin then. “The two drugs are made for each other,” she said. “What one doesn’t have, the other one does. With the dope [heroin], the high doesn’t last as long as Xanax. So, I was more into the Xanax.”
But after she started combining the two, she overdosed, and her mom found her passed out on the floor one day. That’s when she first checked into Mountain Manor.
Melissa detoxed from both drugs, spent two weeks in residential treatment and started taking Suboxone to relieve her opioid cravings. She also attended outpatient classes and stayed sober for a year.
“I got so much closer to my son back then,” she said wistfully. “Everything was better. I was doing so good. But I started hanging out with old friends and I relapsed on Xanax.”
Now, she’s back at Mountain Manor, trying again. She hopes to leave treatment by the end of the week and move into a mother-and-child sober living facility nearby. For now, her mother is taking care of her son.
“It’s really hard,” Melissa says. Withdrawal from Xanax can cause irritability, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, tremors, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. And unlike opioid withdrawal, which usually lasts for about a week, it can last for months.
“Treatment is scary all around. It’s fine when you’re here. You can’t go down the street and meet your dealer. The scariest part is when you go back out there.”