“We don’t heal in isolation, but in community” – S. Kelley Harrell
Recently, a tragedy occurred. We would like to offer our condolences to television host and relationship expert, Dr. Laura Berman, whose 16 year-old son Samuel tragically passed away from a suspected drug overdose. This tragedy has impacted multiple families and undoubtedly left many friends and relatives devastated. Unfortunately, it is far from an isolated incident.
Samuel’s death can be seen as the confluence of multiple modern health crises that contemporary teens are facing:
- Widespread availability of powerful opioid painkillers
- Increased isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic
- Social acceptance of unprescribed prescription drug use and
- The availability of these drugs on popular social media apps
Dr. Berman suspects that Samuel was sold counterfeit Xanax that was laced with fentanyl, a highly potent opioid. Her son purchased the Xanax tablets on the social media app Snapchat, and they were delivered to the house. The stereotype of drug dealers standing on corners pushing their substances is long dead. As the world has moved online, so have drugs. Teens can now purchase a multi-colored array of drugs online using cryptocurrency or bank transfers.
In the past, purchasing drugs would have required some sort of direct criminal connection. Purchasers would need to physically meet a dealer, which posed a challenge for many 16-year-old suburban teens. This is no longer true because getting drugs is as easy as ordering a book from Amazon. Any teen with internet can access a drug menu.
This is especially concerning due to the increased time that teens are spending online. School is still being administered virtually in many states, and millions of teens and children have been learning from home at least part time. “Real-life” social interaction has been limited, and many of our teenagers have been communicating solely through screens for the past year. In 2018, 79.7 million U.S. users accessed Snapchat, and over 75% of people over age 13 use it as their main messaging platform.
Research has shown that the more images teens see of drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to use them themselves. The Media Practice Model takes an alternative view, stating that, “adolescents choose and interact with media based on who they are, or who they want to be, at that moment.” This could be influenced by the popularity of casual hard drug use in music. Many of the most popular songs reference “xans” (Xanax), “molly” (MDMA), and “lean” (codeine). We live in an age of unprecedented access to celebrities, and it’s clear that many teens want to emulate them.
This is especially dangerous when one considers the current purity rates of drugs. Pharmaceutical Xanax, or Alprazolam, is a dangerous and addictive substance on its own. It can cause users to become physically dependent on it, which can result in seizures during withdrawal. Much of the Xanax available nowadays is produced on the black market. This means that there is no telling what dosage the tablets are. Many of them are much stronger than the pharmaceutical they are designed to emulate.
Worryingly, fentanyl has been used as a cutting agent to make fake tablets even more powerful. This is a super-potent opioid, usually reserved for sedating people during operations and for people with severe pain. Just 3mg of fentanyl, an amount that would fit on the head of a pin, is enough to kill someone with no tolerance. Frequently, black-market Xanax contains more than this amount and is often mixed with tranquilizers, which dramatically increases the overdose risk.
Research has shown that many people’s substance use has increased in the past year. However, while people are more isolated than they have ever been and purchasing drugs has never been easier, it may be comforting to know that treatment centers have not shut down and people can get help if they want it.
I firmly believe that one death from overdose is too many, and my mantra is “zero acceptable losses.” Overdoses kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. The fallout of this is hundreds of thousands of broken family members – mothers and fathers who will never get to look their child in the eyes and tell them that they love them again.
To combat this, we cannot live in fear and denial. We would not turn our backs on any other life-or-death situation and hope that it will work itself out. We must be willing to share our experiences with others, much like the brave Dr. Berman has done. We need to approach this with open eyes, minds, and hearts and foster open communication with our children. Substance use disorder and mental health conditions are medical, not moral, issues. Our children need to feel that they can talk to us about these issues without our judgment and trust that we will help them get the help they need.
 “Dr. Laura Berman Speaks Out After 16-Year-Old Son Dies Of Apparent Drug Overdose At Santa Monica Home”. ABC7 Los Angeles, 2021, https://abc7.com/laura-berman-son-overdose-dead/10324568/.
 Tankovska,, H. “U.S. Snapchat Usage By Age 2020 | Statista”. Statista.Com, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/814300/snapchat-users-in-the-united-states-by-age/.
 Ali, Aran. “Snapchat: The Most Popular Social Media Among U.S. Teens”. Visual Capitalist, 2021, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/snapchat-the-most-popular-social-media-among-us-teens/#:~:text=Snap%20has%20249%20million%20daily,does%20this%20data%20come%20from%3F&text=Notes%3A%209%2C800%20teens%20were%20included,survey%2C%20across%2048%20U.S.%20states.
 Moreno, M.A. & Whitehill, J.M. (2014). Influence of Social Media on Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Young Adults. Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 36(1), 91–100.
 Arens, Ann M et al. “Adverse Effects From Counterfeit Alprazolam Tablets.” JAMA internal medicine vol. 176,10 (2016): 1554-1555. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4306
 Ornell, Felipe et al. “The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on substance use: Implications for prevention and treatment.” Psychiatry research vol. 289 (2020): 113096. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113096