Why would teens use some of these more 'unusual' substances? How are they accessing them and why would they decide to use them at school?

A couple of weeks ago, many Australian readers of this blog would have seen reports of an 'overdose' incident at a Gold Coast school. Now I need to make it clear that I do not have any connection with that school and I have not been privy to what actually occurred on that day - I only have media reports to rely on, which as we all know are not always entirely accurate. Regardless, it would appear that we can be quite certain of some basic facts, i.e., a group of Year 10 boys took a substance (with Queensland Police confirming that it was Phenibut later in the week) to school and then made a decision to use it while on school grounds. They then had an adverse reaction to the drug with seven of them being taken to hospital, four reportedly in a critical condition. All of the boys have now recovered and according to media reports, have been expelled from the school.

Without a doubt this would have to be one of the most bizarre stories regarding school-based young people that I have ever been asked to comment on ... When I was first asked to be interviewed I asked for a little time to check up that what I was being told by the journalist was actually true! There were (and still are) so many questions about this incident, including the following:
  • why would young men mess around with such a bizarre drug?
  • how did they find out about the drug?
  • did they have any idea about the risks involved with using the substance?
  • where did they get it from and are there many other young people experimenting with it?
  • why did they decide to use the drug at school?
Firstly, it's important to acknowledge that groups of young people experimenting with 'weird and wacky' substances is not unusual. In some of the interviews I was asked if I had heard about this kind of 'mass overdose' situation before. As I said at the time, there have been a number of similar events over the past 25 years, but they usually involved easily accessible household products (e.g., sniffing aerosol cans) or pharmaceutical drugs, usually mixed with alcohol. There have also been a number of cases of naturally-occurring hallucinogens causing similar problems. I pride myself on usually having my 'finger on the pulse' when it comes to what young people are doing and I've never been greatly surprised by the overdoses of the past, but this one floored me ... It is also one of the first that has occurred on school grounds ...

Hardly a week goes past without a young person either asking me a question, either face-to-face or via email, about some new drug - Phenibut however, had never been discussed. So what is it and why would teens want to experiment with it?

Phenibut is a depressant, approved in Russia, Ukraine, and Latvia for the treatment of, amongst other things, insomnia and anxiety. It is not approved or available as a medication in most other countries of the world, including Australia, but is sold online as a 'nutritional supplement'. Although you can find online discussion about the product in chat rooms dealing with drug use, it is on YouTube that the drug is really promoted. Videos with titles such as 'My Phenibut Review – What You Can Expect And What It Feels Like', 'Beginner's Guide To Phenibut' and 'The Ultimate Phenibut Dosage Guide' can all be found there and are easily accessible to young people.

What is interesting is that the majority of people featured in these videos are older, they're certainly not teenagers. Many of the YouTube videos tout the product as an effective treatment for anxiety, some have bodybuilders promoting it is a useful supplement, supposedly stimulating growth hormone, while others claim it is a 'smart drug', useful in helping you prepare for an exam. Other videos discuss the euphoric effect of the drug, similar to that of GHB, a drug also known as 'fantasy' or 'liquid ecstasy' - a drug very well-known in this country for its links to mass overdoses at dance festivals over the years. So, in terms of why young people would experiment with this substance, the answer is most probably its supposedly 'euphoric' effects, although Erowid (one of the best sources of drug information available) states that it is likely to cause a "feeling of wellbeing, relaxation, slight disinhibition comparable to the effects of low-dose alcohol". Not really a ringing endorsement for a substance!

When it comes to access to this drug, all you need to do is to type 'Buy Phenibut' into a Google search and you will find a range of sites that will allow you to purchase the so-called 'nutritional supplement'. This is not a product that you have to search the so-called 'dark web' for - it truly is just a couple of clicks away for anyone with access to a computer! Worryingly, I'm starting to see more young people who are accessing pharmaceutical drugs in exactly the same way (particularly Xanax - a drug that I'm being asked more and more about in recent times) - finding online pharmacies that are extremely easy to access that are more than happy to provide a wide range of medications.

But then we come to the real question that I am still struggling with - why would these young men make the decision to experiment with this drug at school? To be quite honest, if they hadn't and had chosen to use the product at home and had had a similar reaction, they may not have been found and there could have been truly tragic consequences. That said, it is highly unusual for young people to experiment in this way on school property. All of the other 'mass overdose' incidents involving teens and 'strange substances' I can remember usually took place on a weekend in homes, parks or bushland. Now, if you're thinking teens, particularly young men, have always played around with drugs like cannabis at school, that would be true - it was once an issue - but it hasn't been for some time. Recently, however, we have seen this starting to happen more and more, with growing numbers of schools having to deal with students bringing and using cannabis at school, leading to far more suspensions and expulsions than I have seen for many years.

So why is there this change? Why are young people choosing to take the risk of bringing an illicit drug like cannabis or one of these more 'unusual' substances like Phenibut into schools? It truly makes little sense - the chance of them getting caught is much greater and the consequences of having drugs in your possession on school property are very clear. If we look at it purely from a physiological perspective, we need to remind ourselves of how a teenage brain works and why they take risks ... Young people don't take part in risky behaviour because they want to hurt themselves and it's not that they don't understand the dangers - it's just that they weigh risk versus reward differently. As one academic has been quoted as saying - "they don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff." This reward increases when around their peers - that is why you usually see groups of young men, not individuals, taking part in such activity.

So why is this all of a sudden a greater problem, haven't teen brains have always been the same? I wish I knew ... certainly many of the schools I work with are really struggling with how to deal with this potentially dangerous behaviour. Interestingly, it appears we are seeing more drugs being brought into schools at a time when use is actually decreasing amongst school-based young people. For some reason, even though less teens are using illicit drugs, those who are choosing to use are doing more 'stupid things' ... Add to that, new substances are being added to the mix on a weekly basis, all of which are discussed and reviewed openly in online chat rooms and various websites. And finally, access is no longer limited by 'who you know'. Although many of these substances can only be purchased via the 'dark web', there are others that can be found by a quick Google search, bought and paid for, arriving at your door via Australia Post! Let's just hope that we don't see a tragedy as a result ...

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

8 things parents need to tell their teens about alcohol and vomiting

Would your teen know what to do if something went wrong at a party? Even with the information do they have the 'brain wiring' to respond appropriately?

If you give your teen two drinks to take to a party, is that all they're likely to drink? A group of 16-year-olds tell it from their perspective ...