The Right Prescription for Prevention

By NEA Healthy Futures

By Libby Nealis, Project Consultant, NEA Health Information Network

The problem of prescription drug misuse and abuse by adults has been growing for years, but its recent increase within the adolescent population is alarming.  According to a 2010 survey, one in four adolescents has abused a prescription medication at some point in their lives, which is up from one in five teens in 2009.

In growing numbers, more adolescents are abusing prescription drugs than they are illegal drugs.  With the exception of marijuana, prescription drugs are the drug of choice among 12-13 year olds.  The prescription drugs that teens most commonly abuse or misuse are painkillers, stimulants (like medications taken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD) and depressants (like anti-anxiety medications).  These medications are often easily accessible, sometimes from a parent’s medicine cabinet.  In fact, 64% of teens (age 12-17) who abuse prescription pain relievers say they got them from friends or relatives.

Schools can play an important role in combatting this growing and dangerous trend.  All educators, particularly those who most frequently work with at-risk populations, should be aware of the changing patterns of prescription drug misuse and abuse within

the school-age population.  Professional development around this topic should be made available within schools and school districts so that educators can be aware and knowledgeable about the problem, and better equipped to identify and/or prevent it in their students.  Specialized instructional support personnel (SISP), such as school nurses, school social workers, and school psychologists are among those more likely to detect or observe substance abuse or misuse, but all educators and caregivers should take a more active role in addressing the problem. 

A common assumption driving prevention efforts is that if youth can be helped to understand that experimentation with alcohol or other drugs is dangerous, they will abstain.  Of course, that isn’t usually the case.  Schools can help raise the awareness of students about the dangers of misusing and abusing various substances, but these efforts should be science and fact-based, so that students will take them seriously. Prescription drug education that is based on solid science will help prepare young people for lifelong decisions about the use of medications.  This might include information about appropriate dose levels, the potential for drug toxicity when overused, the effect of different drug combinations, and many other important pieces of information that will help students make proper future choices about taking medications.

Thanks to the support of an educational grant from Purdue Pharma L.P., the National Education Association’s Health Information Network (HIN) offers two resources to help educate young people about the misuse, abuse, and proper use of prescription drugs

  1. Rx for Understanding: Be Smart About Prescription Drugs is a standards-based, cross-curricular teaching resource tailored for grade ranges 5-8, with 5 units and sequenced lessons. 
  2. Rx for Understanding: Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse is focused on students in grades 9-12.  This resource contains 10 lessons that lead students through an inquiry-based, technology inspired project which provides an opportunity to apply key concepts learned about misuse, abuse and proper use of prescription drugs. 

These Educator Resource Guides include background information, lesson plans, reproducible student activity sheets, parent information and national academic standards charts delineating how the content aligns with the National Health Education Standards and the Common Core State Standards.

NEA HIN encourages you to take advantage of these free resources available at no charge at

An accompanying handout written for parents and caregivers can be found here.

While it is critical that students become better educated to the facts and realities of the dangers involved in prescription drug misuse and abuse, it is imperative that adults get the proper education and guidance, as well.  Trusted adult influences like parents, school nurses, school mental health personnel, and other educators are key to helping reverse the trend of teen prescription drug abuse and misuse, and they must be educated themselves about the problem. 

Parents and educators must be mindful of the potential for prescription drug abuse with regard to students accessing parents’, grandparents’, or friends’ prescription medications right in their homes.  Similarly, school staff must be vigilant in their observations of students’ behaviors and should take note in daily encounters with students of any behavior changes they may notice. 

Staff should be aware of what medication(s) a student is taking, including after surgeries or hospitalizations when prescription drug use is common.  This would be an ideal time to remind them of the dangers and risks of using these medications in any way other than they have been prescribed. 

School leaders can take advantage of the following free resources to encourage ongoing professional development for their employees and to promote awareness and prevention in their schools and communities.  Get the Rx for Understanding and be smart about prescription drugs.

This post originally appeared on the NEA Health Information Network site. It is reposted with permission and can be found here.

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