Substance Abuse

Boomers’ latest high



South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Center

Where: 6900 SW 80th St., South Miami

Call: 786-662-8118 to make an appointment or visit

Hanley Center

Where: 5200 East Ave., West Palm Beach 33407

Call toll free: 866-4HANLEY

Baby boomers have become addicted to drugs at an alarming rate.

The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released in 2012, found the rate of illicit drug use — cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin — had tripled among those 55 to 59 and nearly doubled among those 50 to 54, from 2002 to 2011. About 6 percent of these groups had used illicit drugs, the survey found.

The bigger issue of boomers’ addictions, however, relates to alcohol and prescription drugs. Over the past decade, the number of boomers being treated for prescription drug abuse at Florida treatment centers has skyrocketed. In 2001, 15 percent of those being treated were boomers, jumping to 30 percent by 2011. Boomers comprise about 22 percent of the state’s population.

Gary Silverman is an addiction therapist at South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center. Historically, alcohol abuse has been the biggest issue for boomers, he said, but increasingly the center is seeing more cases of prescription drug addictions.

“The economy is not good,” Silverman said. “Sometimes they’re forced into early retirement. Social Security, [they] might not be eligible for it yet, so there’s a lot of stressors. A lot of people are going to their doctors and complaining about tension headaches, migraines, anxiety.”

In April 2010, the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, which treats substance abuse addictions among all people, created a program just for boomers.

“They didn’t really identify with the older, older adults — 75, 78 and older,’’ said Juan Harris, the clinical director of the boomer and older adult programs at the Hanley Center.

He says boomers grew up during a time when drug use was a big part of the culture.

“I still find some are romanticizing about the music and the old days, and quite a few of them are still smoking pot,’’ said Harris.

Marijuana, however, is much stronger today than when boomers came of age, as it’s now being grown hydroponically. In addition, synthetic marijuana, also know as “K2” and “Spice,” is made of chemical-engineered compounds, which makes it more potent.

Alcohol, however, is still the biggest culprit, followed by legal drugs like sleeping pills and painkillers, substance abuse experts says. Since its boomer program began, the Hanley Center has treated more than 500 patients.

One 56-year-old woman, who asked to be called Brittney, had the seeds of her prescription drug addiction planted when she learned she had pre-cancerous lesions on her liver. She started getting anxiety attacks; her family doctor prescribed Klonopin, a drug used to control seizures and panic attacks.

She was a recovering alcoholic and had been sober for 10 years. The drug helped with her anxiety, but after eight years she said she began to experience nasty side effects.

“I was just plummeting into more and more depression,’’ said Brittney, who learned from her doctor that she was addicted to Klonopin.

She was shocked.

“I’d been in Alcoholics Anonymous for so long, and I was quite sure that my doctor would never have put me in harm’s way,’’ she said.

She wanted to get off Klonopin cold turkey, but her doctor recommended she be weaned off the drug at a clinic. That process caused her to have severe insomnia, leading the clinic doctors to give her Ambien to help her sleep.

It didn’t work. She lost weight, was cold all the time and her body shook.

“I was just a mess, couldn’t figure it out,’’ she said. “I went to one doctor after another, and they kept saying, ‘Well, this is just you. This is the way you’re going to be. This is just your anxiety.’ And then another one said, ‘You’re mentally ill.’

“One said I’m bipolar.”

That’s when she entered the Hanley Center’s Boomer Recovery Program. “They embraced me, and within three hours they said, ‘This is your problem.’ It was the Ambien.”

The clinical team at Hanley told her she should not have been on Ambien while being weaned off Klonopin. She was treated for 90 days, moved into a halfway house and then got her own apartment.

Two years later, Brittney is clean and leery of taking prescription drugs.

“This is just a pill-popping society, and people in my age range, 50 and up, are handed a pill rather than a solution,” she said. “Doctors need to be educated so that they can understand what kind of struggles they’re perpetrating.”

Dr. John Eustace is the medical director at the South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Center, which is expanding to keep up with the demand.

The potency of drugs has increased over the past 20 years, he said, contributing to more addiction problems. In addition, many doctors lack sufficient knowledge of how to treat people with substance abuse issues.

“The traditional medical training now has a very small part addressed to what we believe is a major health issue, and that’s substance dependence, abuse and addiction,’’ Eustace said.

For too many doctors, he says, echoing Brittney’s assessment, the first choice for treatment is writing a prescription. Doctors often don’t spend enough time talking to their patients, he said; talking can lead to non-pharmaceutical solutions.

Drug companies also aggressively market to doctors as well as consumers, which adds to the problem.

And drug companies also routinely pay doctors for giving promotional talks and doing consultations. A journalism watchdog website, ProPublica, has put together a searchable database detailing the payments doctors and hospitals receive from the drug industry.

For Brittney, her treatment has led to a new chapter in her life. She decided to stay in South Florida, has returned to college to study psychology and is running a business.

“I’m back in school, and I’m very busy, very happy," she said.

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