Not long ago, as is their practice, pharmaceutical companies in the USA conducted a series of experiments. One of particular note involved the behavior and speed of mice in a maze. Once a baseline was established, subjects were exposed to mild electric shocks immediately before entering. Following the shock, most of the mice exhibited difficulties achieving the goal; some slowed down, others shivered, convulsed, defecated, or became disoriented, and some even went catatonic before finally proceeding. A few, unlike before the shock, never made it to the end at all.
A week later, the mice were run through the maze a third time, but this time, after the mice were shocked, they were given a small amount of an opioid similar to oxycodone before being placed in the maze. As before, their total travel time was recorded as well as any unusual behaviors. These mice did considerably better than in the second case with only a few mice even struggling to finish; however, the average time to completion decreased.
The manufacturers of the opioid were particularly interested to note that while the mice given the drugs moved more slowly through the course, they did make it to the end with a significant reduction in observable neurological disturbance.
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Some of my friends cannot understand why I often arrive at my office at 6:30 in the morning and often remain there for 12 hours. One of the reasons is that I have a recurring nightmare. In real life, only last week, Purdu Pharma – a drug manufacturer implicated in reports correlating the introduction of opioids to a 435% increase in heroin addiction – announced the availability of a new form of the drug oxycontin, a time release variant of the pain killer Oxycodone, specifically designed for use by children. This synthetic form of the opiate heroin is already being marketed for use by children with cancer who are experiencing extreme pain. Not surprisingly, however, doctors have also prescribed drugs of this nature for use in treating or preventing serious traumatic pathologies in children.
What we have been doing for the past two years at Second Response sometimes feels like a race against the clock, against pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are waiting in the wings to treat children’s traumatic stress with mind numbing drugs. As a former drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, this possibility, together with society’s collective desire for magic bullet treatments for every malady, is actually my personal nightmare.
While we promote our training protocols as an alternative to this misguided practice, I can still imagine thousands of children being given drugs to help them deal with the traumas of disaster, or after being displaced by earthquakes or floods, under the banner of palliative care. Children impacted by stress, distress and trauma do not suddenly develop a new biologically based chemical imbalance that requires the use of drugs like serotonin uptake inhibitors, opioids, or anything else manufactured by big pharma. While some may consider this widespread distribution of remedies an acceptable solution for a massive problem, why not explore every possible intervention without using those that have well documented, long term side effects that carry the potential to develop chemical dependencies?
If we act compassionately and with haste, children’s futures need not be one in which medications of this type play any role at all. Despite increasing incidence of traumatic stress, it is still quite possible to teach strategies for self regulation, mindfulness and programs that include play as ways to mitigate stress effectively and put kids back on a road to joy and fun instead of leading them down a path to addiction and a lifetime of dependency.