Painful Reality: The Impact of Opioid Addiction on Children

Premier Health Now

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About twice as many children in the U.S. are now being admitted to hospitals for opioid overdoses than in 2004, according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Fortunately, that’s not the case for southwest Ohio children, despite opioid addiction and overdoses reaching epidemic levels here.

But local children suffer in other ways because of opioids. How? Premier Health Now went to Amy Monteith, Director of School Services for Samaritan Behavioral Health Inc. (SBHI), to find out.

SBHI deploys 18 licensed therapists to 32 schools in the region. They primarily counsel elementary and middle school children. And every day they see what opioid use in families can do to children.

Opioids Big Issue for School Therapists

“About half of the 750 students that we’re currently counseling have been impacted in some way by opioid addiction or overdose, in their immediate family or through an aunt or uncle or someone else close to them,” Monteith says.

And three times this year, she said, SBHI therapists comforted children, in the middle of a school day, after having to tell them that their parents had died of an overdose.

“We are also very frequently involved after the fact to help children deal with their loss. We listen to understand how the children perceive what has happened. It’s not always what we would expect. Often, they feel guilty, that it’s something they could have kept from happening. We assure them that it’s not.”

The school therapists also see the troubling effects of addiction on children who haven’t lost a parent. Monteith says, “Children of parents who are addicted are exposed to trauma due to the lifestyle of the addicted parent – unstable housing, unstable relationships, lack of resources, neglect and potential violence.”

These children often are removed from their home by Children’s Services and placed with grandparents (in some cases, great-grandparents), other family or foster parents.

Children at Risk of Substance Abuse

“All of this is very difficult for children to understand and increases the risk of unexpected behaviors at school,” Monteith explains. “Many of our children have seen their parent overdose or found their parent after they have passed. This exposes them to risk factors for their own addiction later in life.”

Monteith says that SBHI school therapists do what they can through education and counseling to lower the children’s risk of substance abuse. They help steer seventh and eighth graders from risky behaviors and toward developing goals and exploring careers.

“We try to surround them with positive influences, but that’s difficult when their family is not a positive influence or not around,” she explains.

Some children may show the effects of being born to addicted mothers. But this can be difficult to prove, says Monteith. “Substance use in pregnant women has been a major public health concern, but due to the nature of the issue, it is difficult to do scientific research on the long-term effects.”

She adds, “Drug use overlaps with other risk factors such as poor nutrition, lack of prenatal medical care and poor health in the mother,” to contribute to learning and behavior problems in children.

“When we see a child, we rarely know if their behavior is caused by a parent who was abusing drugs during pregnancy, a family history, trauma or other risk factors. Most of our children are diagnosed with either ADHD or trauma – sometimes both – but the exact cause of their behavior is rarely known.

“And it doesn’t affect how we work with the child. We encourage every child's strengths to help them reach their highest potential.”

For resources on opioid addiction and treatment in southwest Ohio, visit OpioidAssist.com.

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