Eagle County is not immune to prescription drug abuse

Rosanna Turner
Daily Correspondent
There are resources available locally for people struggling with prescription drug addiction, including Narcotics Anonymous meetings held nearly daily; The Women’s Substance Abuse Recovery Group holds meetings twice a week.
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Help for those struggling with prescription drug abuse

Dena Southerlan, a registered psychotherapist at Rocky Mountain Counseling in Eagle, said those addicted to prescription medications should first seek the assistance of their physician, as going off these drugs without medical supervision can be dangerous. Other local resources include:

• Vail Valley Medical Center has a SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment) program designed to screen patients for substance abuse and tobacco use. Patients who screen positive are referred to the SBIRT coordinator for intervention. For more information on VVMC’s Trauma Services Department call 970-479-7185.

• Narcotics Anonymous: NA meetings are offered almost daily at various locations in Eagle County. There are also special meetings for Spanish-speakers. For a list of times and locations visit

• The Women’s Substance Abuse Recovery Group holds meetings in Eagle every Monday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. Cost is $30 per session. For more detailed information call 970-445-2700.

• National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in which one can anonymously drop off their prescription medications to local law enforcement, happens at least once every year. The date for 2015 has yet to be announced, but contact the Vail Police Department or the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office for more information.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the third most abused substance in America, just behind alcohol and marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While there is little concrete data on how prevalent prescription drug abuse is in our area, in talking with multiple local health professionals, it’s clear that Eagle County is not exempt from this statistic.

One of the few studies there is on prescription drug abuse deals with use among teenagers. According to the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 15 percent of local high school students have taken a prescription drug that wasn’t prescribed to them, such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, codeine, Adderall, Ritalin or Xanax, at some point in their lifetime. This percentage is only slightly behind the rest of Colorado and national averages. Michelle Stetcher, executive director of the Eagle River Youth Coalition, said one way a young person might gain access to prescription drugs is from someone they know who recently had a sports-related injury.

“We have a very fit, athletic community and there’s a lot of sports injuries that happen,” Stetcher said. “Some of the medications for pain relief are really addictive. … I think it’s really easy for people to become addicted to some of those pain meds. We hear that from the kids as well.”

Stetcher also said some teens have talked to her about what they call “Skittles parties.”

“Prescription drug addiction (should be) properly classified with other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
Dena Southerlan
Registered psychotherapist

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“To get in the door you have to bring a handful of pills, like grabbing something from the medicine cabinet at home,” Stetcher said. “All of the pills will get put into a big bowl, and you grab blindly and take whatever you get.”

Stetcher doesn’t know how often parties like these actually occur, only that “we’ve heard about it from local kids,” she said.


Dr. Matthew Kamper, medical director of the emergency department at Vail Valley Medical Center, said he personally has not seen a prescription drug overdose in a teenager that he can recall in his 15 years in the emergency room at VVMC.

When it comes to prescription drug overdoses overall, Kamper doesn’t know exactly how often they occur, but he estimates that it’s less than once a month. Prescription drug overdoses are far less common than alcohol overdoses, which Kamper said occur nearly every day, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t a serious concern.

“In the ER, narcotics are the most commonly prescribed medication,” Kamper said. “The reason for that at Vail is that most of what we’re seeing are injuries that are associated with sports. The ones who get into trouble with narcotics are the ones who are using them for chronic pain situations.”

At VVMC, those in the emergency room do not refill narcotic prescriptions. Kamper said the issue of prescribing narcotic medications can at times be a double-edge sword.

“It was only a few years ago that all of the (discussion) was about how emergency room physicians were under-prescribing pain killers because they were not treating people’s pain,” Kamper said.


Currently in the state of Colorado, the Electronic Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, run by the Colorado State Board of Pharmacy, allows medical professionals such as physicians, pharmacists and dentists to access a patient’s history of controlled substance prescriptions immediately. Despite the fact that there are rigid laws and policies in place to prevent fraudulent prescriptions and over-prescribing to patients, what some call “doctor shopping” still occurs. Dena Southerlan, a registered psychotherapist at Rocky Mountain Counseling in Eagle, has treated people locally who are addicted to prescription drugs like Oxycontin and Xanax. Southerlan said those who are addicted somehow find a way to get the drug they’re seeking.

“‘Doctor shopping’ — this is something that I hear a lot,” Southerlan said. “They keep shopping for a doctor until they get what they want, until they find someone who will prescribe it. … Most of the time, they’re getting a prescription. Certainly there are some times where they’re getting it off the street.”

While it’s possible that someone with no history of substance abuse could become addicted to a prescription medication, Southerlan said abusing prescription drugs along with alcohol and other illegal drugs is far more common.

“It’s very rare now for me to see a client with alcohol and drug addiction without seeing prescription drug abuse along with that,” Southerlan said.


Southerlan said with some of the people she treats, initially they aren’t aware of how addictive and potentially dangerous some prescription medications, like Percocet, can be.

“Often times they’re prescribed Percocet to treat pain,” Southerlan said. “Then it becomes that they are not using it as prescribed, for the amount of time that it is prescribed, and then we see a lot of the addictive properties.”

When it comes to treating an addiction to a prescription medication, it’s important that someone not stop using the drug completely, which could have serious health consequences.

“(Someone should) never just stop taking the medication without having proper supervision (by a doctor),” Southerlan said. “It depends on the medication, but with Xanax and certain depressants, we can see seizures. With opioids (like Oxycontin), this can cause severe respiratory suppression, coma, permanent brain damage and even death.”

To treat mental health problems like anxiety and panic disorder, Southerlan is not against prescribing medication, but “the best treatment options are with an approach that combines cognitive behavioral therapy,” she said.

“I do believe these drugs are in place for a reason,” Southerlan said. “What we’re talking about is when people are taking it to the next level and they become dependent on the medication.”


For local health professionals, preventing and treating prescription drug addiction is not an easy task with a simple solution. Southerlan thinks there needs to be more emphasis on prescription drug monitoring programs, in which physicians screen patients for possible substance addiction. However, she acknowledges that this can be tricky.

“It’s such a hard call,” Southerlan said. “When people are in active addiction, they’re not being totally honest … about the drugs they’re taking and their history of addiction issues. This does make it difficult for the doctor if they’re not getting accurate, honest information. All they can go off of is what the (patient) is telling them.”

Kamper thinks that preventing prescription medication addiction is twofold, with the focus being on both improving medical policies and providing better education to patients about medications that are potentially addictive.

“We need to limit the conditions under which we will prescribe narcotics in the Emergency Department and limit what we’ll prescribe,” Kamper said. “The second most important thing is education of the public as to the proper use of these medications and the dangers that are associated with them.”

When it comes to an addiction, prescription medication or otherwise, ultimately it’s up the individual to seek help. Southerlan said that unless someone really wants to change, not much will.

“There has to be that level or motivation or willingness, or it doesn’t work,” Southerlan said. “The hope is that doctors or mental health professionals will be planting a seed in asking these questions, providing a little bit of information to a (patient) about the potential ramifications of these drugs.”

Although our local focus tends to be on alcohol and marijuana use, it’s important to remember that not only are there are many people in our community struggling with prescription drug abuse, there are also resources to help them overcome their addiction.

“I think it is a disease,” Southerlan said. “Prescription drug addiction (should be) properly classified with other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is treatable; I think that’s really important. There is hope.”

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