Why are rich suburban kids doing heroin?

In the past two years, I’ve lost four friends to drug overdoses. I grew up with several people who are now heroin addicts, both recovering and using. My friends and I have watched our peers drop like flies over the past few years, and it’s only getting worse as the nation’s opioid crisis intensifies in a myriad of ways.

Guess where I’m from? Who my friends are? What their childhoods looked like? You might have imagined I’m from a rural area, or an urban neighborhood. You might have thought these friends of mine were poor and under-supervised. You might impose the well-known narrative of using drugs as an escape from the hardships of poverty, when life is bleak and it seems there are no other viable options. Most of all, you wouldn’t have guessed that these are the same kids that grew up rich in Fairfield.

These are the suburban upper-middle-class kids you never thought would go down that path.

So why do the kids who seem like they have it all use opioids? It’s not that they don’t understand the risks of this use; developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg, author of The Age of Opportunity (2014) thoroughly clarifies this point. He cites a wealth of research to show that adolescents engage in risky behavior not because they don’t understand the risks —programs like D.A.R.E. and standard public-school health classes have been drilling this into their heads since elementary school— but because they simply don’t care as much about long-term risks as they do immediate rewards. When it come to the use of highly addictive drugs like prescription opioids, heroin, and increasingly-prevalent fentanyl, adolescents are simply more likely to take the risk if the option is available.

Parental attitude is also another significant factor at play here. According to a study looking at affluent teen behavior by researchers Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla (2018), strictness in parents starts out helpful, until it flips the script. Strict parents are more successful in keeping their teens away from substances while under the age of 18, but this strictness has an inverse affect once kids move out.

Now free from their parents’ reign, college kids have the freedom to do what they want—and they do, with sharp increases in alcohol and drug use and abuse. When we turn to opioid use, this lines up with findings by Cicero et al. (2014), who found that heroin usage statistics have shifted over the last 50 years from “an inner-city, minority-centered problem” to a much more widespread one that primarily involves white suburbanites in their late 20s.

The study interviewed opioid addicts entering recovery and found that these more recent users, now in their late 20s, began using opioids at the average age of 22.9 years of age, just past college age and still certainly within the realm of adolescence. These users were also introduced to opioids through prescription drugs rather than heroin (a far more expensive route to take), and later migrated to heroin use.

Another factor for drug use by affluent adolescents is the high comorbidity rates between mental illness and drug abuse (Luthar, 2003; Jordan et al., 2017). According to findings by Luthar, affluent high schoolers are more maladjusted than any other socioeconomic group, reporting higher anxiety across a number of domains, greater depression, and significantly higher substance use.

Simply put, rich kids have a harder time adjusting to real life. There are any number of reasons why this might be: higher expectations from parents who are already at the top of society; weak familial relationships as a result of being left home alone too much; a learned lifestyle that chases pleasure at all costs; and the list goes on.

Putting this all together —the risky tendencies of adolescents, the backlash against strict parents, the maladjustments of affluent teens and the impact this all has on drug use—means that these substance-abuse patterns I’ve noticed among my wealthier peers tragically makes a lot of sense. It’s not so surprising that affluent teens and young adults who find themselves free of parental observation, with a lot of anxiety and money on their hands, would turn to the thrilling and life-threatening high of opiates.

Maybe it’s time we check our problematic assumptions that opiates are a problem reserved for the poor, minority “other.” The opioid epidemic seriously impacts people from all walks of life, and does not fit neatly into any single narrative. No socioeconomic group is immune to this problem; the steadily rising number of deaths by drugs each year, in the nation and in Connecticut, grants no mercy.

Diana G. Stone lives in Fairfield.

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