Press of Atlantic City

N.J. Ranks 6th For Overdoses Among Youth

Press of Atlantic City — November 30, 2015

NICOLE LEONARD, Staff Writer

A new report ranked New Jersey sixth in the nation with the highest rates of drug overdoses in the youth population.

Health experts said the findings show the need for starting prevention education sooner.

"We need to figure out the best practice on how to get information from kids," said Rich Hamburg, deputy director at Trust for America's Health. "We may find out that certain drugs or alcohol is being abused."

That's already happening in Ocean County, which has a high drug abuse and overdose rate, prompting health officials to implement more drug-education programs in schools.

Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., released its Reducing Teen Substance Misuse: What Really Works report Nov. 19. Researchers averaged drug overdoses in people ages 12 to 25 in every state for 2011 to 2013.

Drug overdose rates increased considerably in the past decade in 35 states and more than quadrupled in five, becoming the leading cause of injury deaths in 2013.

"Overall, when we look at figures, when you see that numbers have doubled in a significant amount of states, tripled in a number of states and quadrupled in five states, that's an epidemic," Hamburg said.

Overdose rates were the highest among young males in New Jersey. The only states that had higher rates in that category were Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

The founders of the report focused on teenagers and young adults to emphasize the point that early prevention efforts could affect death rates into adulthood. Many adults who have or had substance abuse problems started using drugs in their teenage years.

The report also analyzed prevention policies and other indicators in each state for a substance misuse prevention report card. Some prevention and recovery policies nationwide include access to medication such as naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, which can prevent an opioid overdose.

New Jersey was one of only two states that received full marks on the report card. To get a complete score of 10, the state had to have at least an 80 percent high school graduation rate, bullying prevention laws, dram-shop and smoke-free laws, increased mental health funding, good Samaritan laws and drug-sentencing reform.

Hamburg said just because a state had a high report card score doesn't mean it would have lower rates of overdoses, as exemplified in New Jersey. The reason the state may have a full roster of prevention policies and programs is because of its high overdose rate, he said.

"Whether you have a high or low rate, it's good to have these types of policies in place," he said. "The first step is prevention, and improving the health and well-being of children and teens."

The deputy director said screenings for early intervention efforts and comprehensive effective treatment and recovery support were vital for states to develop lower overdose rates.

Although New Jersey has many of those programs in place, Dan Meara, spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey, said officials are missing the window of opportunity between an overdose and subsequent drug abuse.

"Once you have someone who has overdosed and is later stabilized, they can just go on their way. They're very likely to return to use and cause another overdose," he said. "Once they're in touch with first responders, we need to get them treatment. That's an opportunity we're missing."

Meara said after a person survives an overdose, he or she may be more willing to accept treatment for an addiction, but "we don't have enough treatment capacity in the state as it is," he said.

NCADD-New Jersey provides an early intervention drug and alcohol screening program in partnership with New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen watchdog coalition. Because some overdoses stem from abuse of prescription painkillers, Meara said screenings might get someone help before he or she develops an addiction.

"Especially with young people who dabble with prescription drugs," he said. "It definitely would be of some help because a certain percentage of those kids will say, 'Yes, I need help.'"

Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties are on par with state drug misuse and overdose rates, but Ocean County has some of the highest.

Leslie Terjesen, spokeswoman for the county Health Department, said health officials have introduced a program called Drug Code at the high schools that is separated into three parts focusing on alcohol, marijuana and prescription drug abuse. Additional alcohol education programs are used at all but two Ocean County high schools, she said.

"Education is probably the basis. Learning about something is number one," Terjesen said.

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