Children of addicts deserve our protection

PhilipSeymourHoffmanBy Dr. Micaela Wexler

As has become common, we were spared no details as yet another beautiful mind was stolen from us by addiction, this time heroin. Given Philip Seymour Hoffman’s frank honesty about his struggles with substance abuse in his youth and his recent relapse, I would like to think he would want the circumstances surrounding his death to serve as a warning to all of us, especially young people.
So what are we to make of this tragedy, and the message inherent behind these graphic disclosures? Are we to focus our anger at the media, for violating his privacy and that of his family? True, his three children deserve protection at this difficult time. But, like all other children with parents who struggle with addiction, they are at heightened risk of future struggles with addictions themselves, and why not protect them, and other young people, by gathering our resources to fight this horrible disease?
We do not, as yet, have a cure for this disease. A person in recovery is like a person in remission form cancer. The threat of a recurrence of their disease lurks over his or shoulder permanently. Our best hope lies in prevention, followed by treatments that have been proven to work.
Prevention must start with targeting the children of addicts. Since it is not always possible to know who they are, given the stigma surrounding addiction, we must target all children by educating them as well as ourselves. Research shows that the best prevention lies in identifying risk factors, and tailoring interventions to strengthen specific protective factors. Risk factors in childhood for eventual addiction include early childhood aggression, genetic predisposition, lack of parental supervision and substance abuse.
Early aggression can be addressed by teaching conflict resolution and addressing the anxiety that triggers this behavior. Genetic predisposition could be addressed by teaching adult addicts how to educate and protect their children. Lack of parental supervision can be addressed by increasing community support of families, as well as educating parents. Find out WHY parental support is lacking, and how that child can be supported.
Substance abuse in children is sadly widespread and oftentimes ignored. There is good research showing that exposure is a common trigger for initiation of drug use. Children are exposed to tobacco advertising from the time they are toddlers standing next to their parents at the convenience store. We advertise alcohol on television. And, now with the increased legalization of marihuana, pot advertising campaigns have introduced a new avenue of exposure. In our zeal to do legalize pot, we have, once again, disregarded the needs of our most vulnerable people. A child with multiple risk factors doesn’t really stand a chance when talk of pot use is on the evening news, all over social media and on the radio.
Substance abuse must be addressed promptly and with compassion. A strong parent-child bond has been shown to be the best prognostic factor; however parents’ high level of anxiety when confronted with their child’s substance abuse often interferes with this parent-child bond. We must support, rather than shun, parents when they are faced with this crisis. We must advocate for positive interventions when children are caught with drugs at school rather than punitive measures, such as suspension.
Adults struggling with addiction are often denied treatments that have been shown to work. A good example is the use of Suboxone in the treatment of opioid addiction, which has been shown to be life-saving. This treatment is sadly very underutilized due to the critical shortage of Suboxone providers. The training required to prescribe Suboxone is not a routine part of medical training. Currently, a physician is only allowed to have 100 patients on Suboxone at any given time. Both these factors contribute to the severe shortage of Suboxone prescribers.
We must increase the availability of this and other successful treatments, and we must do away with the many myths surrounding addiction. For example, let us do away with the idea that addicts are “choosing” their drugs over their families or jobs. This will only happen when we, as a society, accept that this is a disease, and then mobilize our resources the way we have behind diseases like breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Philip Seymour Hoffman left behind three children who join countless others who have been orphaned by drug addiction. All of them cry for our protection. Let us use the tragedy of his death to make their world, and ours, safer from addiction.

Dr. Micaela Wexler also blogs on child psychiatry topics at

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