Connie and Andy Tighe were like many other parents a decade ago, unaware of the escalating problem of prescription drug abuse.
That all changed when their son, Kevin, started showing the telltale signs of painkiller addiction, which led to what Connie Tighe described as “a rollercoaster of treatment and relapse,” eventually ending in Kevin’s untimely death a little more than two years ago at the age of 29.
And when their nephew also died after becoming addicted to prescription drugs, the Tighes said it was time to speak.
“I wasn’t aware of prescription pill abuse,” Connie Tighe said during a presentation at West Deptford High School Tuesday night. “It really wasn’t on our radar screen.”
As photos of Kevin—from his youth soccer team, or hanging out with family, or as a stony-faced football player in his No. 55 jersey—played out behind her, Connie Tighe unfolded her son’s story of addiction, which eventually escalated to him to the deadly combination of OxyContin and Xanax.
The painkiller abuse likely started after Kevin, a 1999 West Deptford High School graduate, battled through multiple knee and hand injuries as a teenager, Connie Tighe said, when he was prescribed powerful drugs like Percocet or Vicodin after surgeries.
Those prescriptions created a scenario where addiction became more likely, Connie Tighe said, and it would take time before they could see anything was wrong—in fact, not until Kevin’s college grades slipped and he shifted between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan did it really become apparent.
“He was good at hiding his pill abuse from us,” Connie Tighe said.
Outpatient rehab didn’t work—Kevin was too good at manipulating the system, Connie Tighe said—and a shot at inpatient rehab fell apart, leading to frustration and heartbreak.
“The entire family becomes victim to addiction,” she said.
And though the Tighes—a tight-knit family, involved in their children’s lives, with a strong support network—might not seem a likely family to be hit with drug abuse, West Deptford Detective Sgt. Sean McKenna said there’s no blueprint when it comes to prescription drug abuse.
“This doesn’t just happen to people with broken families,” McKenna said. “This could happen to anyone.”
Prescription drugs are particularly insidious, McKenna said, given their easy availability. While a teenager might have to hop in a car and drive 15 minutes to Camden to score street drugs, prescription painkillers could be sitting in a medicine cabinet a few rooms away.
“They don’t even have to get on the highway,” he said.
Worse, McKenna said, is the relative ease in getting prescribed something like oxycodone with just a simple doctor’s visit. Doctors wrote out 200 million pain medication prescriptions in 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health, and McKenna quoted statistics that indicated about 70 percent of doctor’s visits result in some kind of prescription.
“You’re going to walk out with some painkillers,” he said. “It’s becoming a problem.”
It’s gotten to the point where teens are experimenting with painkillers or other medications instead of traditional gateway drugs, like marijuana, McKenna said.
“Prescription drugs are right there now,” he said.
While painkiller abuse is common, McKenna said, other prescription drugs—Valium, Klonopin, Xanax—also end up being used recreationally, and around 40 percent of teens think abusing prescription drugs is safer than street drugs.
“This is the silent killer in our society,” he said.
And given the high price of those painkillers on the street, where OxyContin sells for $20 or $40 per pill, what starts out as a prescription drug addiction could turn into a heroin habit in a hurry, McKenna said.
Parents need to be aware of the signs of prescription drug abuse—changes in behavior or friend groups, loss of interest in activities, major grade slips—and act early to try to head off problems before they get out of conrol, McKenna said.
Since prescription drugs are frequently in a medicine cabinet with easy access, steps need to be taken when it comes to medication—McKenna suggested parental oversight when it comes to using any powerful prescription drugs, and the Tighes said it could be worth considering locking up any potentially addictive drugs.
When it comes to intervention, West Deptford High School principal Brian Gismondi and student assistance counselor April Sanford said parents consistently use the school as a resource for addressing concerns about potential drug abuse, usually going through administrators or guidance counselors.
“We move forward with them from there—offer them support, reach out, if they want,” Sanford said. “It’s been really impressive.”
The high school offers a range of services, from individual and group counseling for students and families, to drug and alcohol intervention programs to crisis intervention.
And the random drug testing program at the high school can detect prescription drug abuse, Gismondi said. Students who test positive at any one of those tests have to go through substance abuse counseling and have a clean test after that, under current guidelines at the high school.