(WOMENSENEWS)–For 13 years Sharon Blair fought to get the help her daughter needed to prevent death from an overdose. She lost this battle in 2009 when her daughter died at the age of 29 in Clearwater, Fla., their hometown, from abusing prescription pills.
Today Blair is struggling to have Florida lawmakers pass The Jennifer Act to enforce current laws that allow relatives to force addicts into long-term treatment despite their objections.
“It is a life preserver,” says Blair. “It’s to help addicts by intervening because they can’t stop on their own.”
Florida’s current commitment laws provide a detox program of up to 72 hours if a loved one has demonstrated the addict’s need for it. A petition, which requires a fee, must then be filed for a judge to hear the case. For years, Blair begged the Florida court to place her daughter, Jennifer Reynolds, in rehabilitation, but Reynolds was never forced into treatment for more than a few days.
“Long-term treatment is needed,” says Blair. “There is no drive-through drug treatment.”
But involuntary commitment isn’t so simple. “The concern right away would be somebody’s civil rights,” says Dr. Art Thalassinos, a psychiatrist based in Columbus, Ohio. And if the person is not willing to receive treatment, it’s a waste of time, he says. “If you don’t understand what you’re doing to yourself or to your loved ones, you will end up doing the same thing once you’re out.”
A judge has the ability to order treatment, says Thalassinos, “but they don’t usually mandate that you get treatment unless you break the law.”
Since Reynolds’ most serious crime was driving under the influence, she was forced into only brief periods of rehab.
Prescription pill abuse grabs headlines when sports and entertainment celebrities are involved, but the problem is becoming an increasingly lethal face of everyday life.
The number of people who die from abusing painkillers more than tripled in 2008 from 1999, finds a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These deaths, which are close to 15,000 a year, have surpassed the number of addicts who die from heroin and cocaine, collectively. The same study indicates that these medications are being prescribed at a higher rate than 10 years ago.
Women are a big part of the problem.
The number of pregnant women using opioids, or painkillers, was five times greater in 2009 than in 2000, reported a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The number of babies being born with addiction has also tripled.
Women are more susceptible to pill abuse because they receive prescription medication almost 50-percent more than male counterparts, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Women are also considered vulnerable to abuse of prescription medication because of their higher rates of doctor visits, which provides more opportunities to tell a doctor about stress or depression.
Women are prescribed anti-anxiety pills at twice the rate of men, says a study by Medco Health Solutions, a U.S. health care company headquartered in St. Louis, Mo.
If you become addicted to anti-anxiety pills, withdrawal can cause a seizure and high blood pressure, says Dr. Angie Stergiou, a psychiatrist in Columbus, Ohio. “An overdose can happen if an addict combines alcohol with anti-anxiety medication.”
Stergiou adds that painkillers can be lethal on their own. “You can take three pills and die if you don’t have tolerance.”
This is what happened to Reynolds, who at the age of 16 started going to rave clubs and began experimenting with opiates. She quickly became addicted, recalls her mother.
When she turned 18 all she had to do to fuel her addiction was show her doctor her scar from a spinal surgery and say she was in pain.
“In Florida, my daughter could go to any pain clinic she wanted,” says Blair.
Florida has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the country. This rate is 13.4 deaths in every 100,000 people, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 percent of these deaths are from opioid analgesics, or painkillers, the same prescription drugs that killed Reynolds.
Blair says addicts will rarely commit themselves to rehabilitation, because they are usually in denial about their condition or are afraid of withdrawal. She believes if her daughter was given involuntary treatment she would still be alive.
While lawmakers are still reviewing The Jennifer Act in Florida, in March it was passed in Indiana, where Blair relocated after her daughter’s death. She dreams of having the bill passed nationwide.
“If you ask any mother whose child is dead if they would want the judge to force them into a treatment center, they’d say yes, rather than have to grieve their death,” says Blair.
Anna Halkidis is a freelance journalist from Queens, N.Y. She also runs a music blog, www.musicnlove.com.
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