Children of substance abusers: victims of drug epidemic

Her suggested headline: In a video released by Cabell Huntington Hospital (WV) to Reuters news service, a days old infant writhes in the throes of a seizure. He is in the early stages of withdrawal. He is a baby born addicted. His agony is similar to that of adult drug abusers who are trying to quit their habits cold turkey.

This particular infant will successfully withdraw but still will face a highly uncertain future. From newborns to adolescents, children are in increasing numbers key victims of our nation’s growing chemical dependency epidemic.

Newborns, like the one in the Cabell Huntington infant withdrawal program, become addicted to drugs that pass from mother to baby through the placenta. When the umbilical cord is severed, the supply of the drug is cut off. The mother might have taken either illicit or prescribed substances such as heroin, codeine, oxycodone (oxycontin), and methodone. 2015 estimates suggest that a drug- addicted baby is born every 19 minutes. Cabell Huntington Hospital recorded nine addicted infants born in one day. But these figures refer to babies addicted to drugs who have been reported. According to Cabell Huntington neonatologist Dr. Sean Loudin, only a small percentage of drug-addicted babies are reported. Consequently, social service agencies, who could provide valuable support to both mother and infant, are not notified. But most of these babies, most particularly the unreported, face a life of neglect.

Whether born addicted or not, a quickly growing number of children are growing up in addicted households. As Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Katy Wedig points out, “The country’s addiction epidemic has created a generation of children affected by their parents’ problems.” Estimates as to how many children in the United States live with a substance abuser range as high as 20 million.

The home life of these children is far from nurturing. They are often left alone for long periods, possibly even days. They are not sure when the adults they live with will suffer wild mood swings, explosions of anger, which can lead to verbal or physical abuse. They are regularly witnesses to domestic violence. They are there to watch adults taking drugs, possibly overdosing, perhaps dying as a result. Often enough, substance-abusing adults accuse children of being the cause of their addictions. And, no surprise, the children tend to believe that they are in fact to blame. This is a childhood specially designed to produce psychological trauma with results reaching far into adulthood.

The consequences for children living with chemically dependent adults often produce long-term effects on both physical and mental health. Studies are now suggesting that, as such children grow into adolescence and adulthood, they have an increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, emphysema, cardiac problems, cancer, and liver disease. These consequences might well be directly linked to the elevated risk for deep anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders. Children of substance abusers are, most importantly, at high risk of becoming addicted themselves. As narconon.org points out, a “shocking number of currently detained prison inmates and rehab attendees admit they had a tumultuous upbringing” in an addicted household. “Many youth have entered into drug and/or alcohol abuse paths of their own, largely due to their exposure to such activities as a young child.”

As our nation’s substance abuse epidemic grows, the children of addicts in turn become addicts in increasing numbers. Addressing this mounting problem, as well as the drug crisis as a whole, is a massive challenge to mental health and addiction agencies, social service organizations, and members of the entire community. Programs in public education, prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery can over the long run combine to turn back the substance abuse epidemic.

Charles Pridgeon is president of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board. Behavioral Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the last Saturday of the month.


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