Drug addiction discussed at conference

By Josette Keelor

FRONT ROYAL — Understanding addiction and mental illness is not as easy as knowing risk factors or researching a patient’s past. The diseases aren’t exclusively caused by nature or nurture, explained Dr. Kevin McCauley — they come from both.

According to McCauley, the field of epigenetics has helped scientists study how physiological conditions passed down through generations can affect mental health patients today.

“Very compelling, very scary,” he said.

The research stemmed from the Swedish Overkalix study of a town in which children exposed to starvation between the ages of 7 and 14 contributed to the rate of diabetes in their grandchildren.

Similarly, he said, the choices made today will affect future generations.

“I’m not just getting sober for me,” he said. “I’m increasing the resiliency of my family, of my community.”

At a mental health conference in Warren County on Friday, presenters spoke on advances in addiction treatment and how to recognize drug abuse behavior to understand its effects and influence on users. Organized by the Warren Coalition, it was the first of what seeks to become a yearly effort to address high rates of drug abuse in and around the Shenandoah Valley.

Pinpointing mental illness has always been tough because the symptoms don’t always look like symptoms, said McCauley, director of program services at New Roads Treatment Center in Sandy, Utah. When doctors didn’t know how to recognize mental illness, they treated patients in other ways.

“That’s why we have 2.2 million people in prison,” he said. “My profession didn’t step up. Now we are back on the case.”

In Warren County, high rates of suicide and heroin have grown from attempts at coping with mental illness or self-medicating, said Diane King, community outreach coordinator for the Warren Coalition, which promotes a safe, healthy, drug-free community for area youth.

“They turn to the street drugs to kind of deal with their life stresses,” King said.

Some people are predisposed to becoming addicted to substances, but McCauley said the nature of the substance also plays its part. They’re so desirable and difficult to quit because they raise levels of the hormone dopamine with unnatural speed.

Addictive substances hyper-prioritize themselves in people’s lives, replacing any interest in other basic needs like eating, self-preservation or relationships with others, McCauley explained.

“The problem isn’t so much dopamine, it’s how fast that dopamine comes out,” McCauley said.

He said that’s why in the case of alcohol addiction, counselors recommend abstinence, to prevent that satisfying chemical spike from derailing sobriety.

Addiction also forms from involuntary memory of rewarding feelings through the use of drugs, substances like caffeine or unhealthy practices like gambling, cult membership, accumulation or eating.

“[But] the drug that is most likely to kill them? Nicotine,” he said. It’s the biggest problem he’s seen on his list of addictions.

Though advancements in science have helped neurologists better understand mental health, McCauley said they have caused another problem — increasing effectiveness of drugs.

Referencing nationwide efforts to legalize marijuana, he said, “We’re not really talking about pot anymore.”

“This is not the equivalent of what’s going on in my daughter’s high school. This is much, much more dangerous,” he said. Marijuana isn’t what it was in the 1960s. It’s more potent, and users are smoking it in new ways.

They’re also getting high off other drugs in new and dangerous ways, according to Officer Jermaine Galloway, a substance abuse expert in Idaho and founder of the Northwest Alcohol Conference, who spoke on recognizing drug culture in our backyard.

Teenagers inhaling from balloons at parties aren’t sucking helium. They’re inhaling 100 percent nitrous oxide, he said. It’s similar to the anesthetic used in dentists’ offices, only higher in potency. They also take hits of nitrous oxide off pressurized whip cream cans or store canisters of the chemical in their homes.

Drug paraphernalia is more prevalent than people realize, and Galloway said bracelets with pills beaded in and graphic T-shirts can be signs of adherence to drug culture.

Another sign is innocuously named events advertised through social networking sites — highlighter parties, “non-alcoholic” all-age dances or EDM parties, which he said are code for raves. EDM stands for electronic dance music and is becoming more frequent in rural areas, where partygoers can better escape the notice of law enforcement.

“These are not all kids events,” Galloway said. “You have to pay attention to who’s attending.”

The after-parties take place in the early morning hours after bars normally close, he said.

“When you have a large event like this,” Galloway said, “every drug is there.”

Contact the Warren Coalition at 540-636-6385 or at http://www.warrencoalition.org.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>