Teen Meth Use in San Diego

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Elizabeth Urquhart, Sr. Dir. Phoenix House San DiegoBlog Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Urquhart, Senior Director of Adolescent Programs at Phoenix House San Diego, has spent many years helping the county fight its meth epidemic. In some areas of the county, it appears that these efforts have had positive outcomes. In others, however, the rate of meth overdose deaths continues to rise. In light of a recently released report from the Methamphetamine Strike Force of San Diego County, we discussed these issues with Ms. Urquhart as they pertain to adolescents.

Phoenix House:  How do you treat teens who are addicted to meth?

Elizabeth Urquhart:  At Phoenix House Academy of San Diego, we treat teens addicted to meth as we do teens struggling with other substance abuse problems. We start with a comprehensive assessment to determine each teen’s unique needs and then we develop a treatment plan. Treatment typically includes individual, group, and family therapy. We use “evidence-based practices,” meaning our methods are grounded in scientific research, focused on physical and psychological health.  We also offer recreation and wellness activities, family education services, and transition planning as adolescents make progress toward recovery.

 PH: What are the most common warning signs of meth use?

EU:  Teenagers by nature can be moody and unpredictable so it’s sometimes difficult to tell if your child is using methamphetamine. However, there are warning signs to watch for. Short-term use can result in:

• Alertness and inability to sleep: Something might be up if you notice a change in your teen’s sleeping patterns — especially if he’s staying up for days on end and then sleeping or fatigued for a few days straight.

• Nervous physical activity: You notice your daughter is fidgeting — and possibly scratching or picking at her skin.

• Decreased appetite: Your child is uninterested in food, and starts to become dangerously thin.

• Euphoria and rush: Your teen might be extremely alert and energized, even after he or she was up all night.

• Increased respiration and/or increased body temperature: Your child might appear out of breath for no reason (methamphetamine is a stimulant that can speed up one’s heart rate).

• Burns, nosebleeds or track marks: If there are strange burns on her lips or fingers, she may be smoking methamphetamine through a hot glass or metal pipe. Snorting methamphetamine could cause nosebleeds and eventually eat away at the septum inside the nose. If she’s using methamphetamine intravenously there could be track marks on her arms.

• Carelessness about appearance: Has your teen stopped showering? Has she lost interest in grooming? Does he no longer brush his teeth?

• Deceit or secretiveness: Is your normally honest child lying to you all the time? Is his bedroom door always closed? Does she have a seemingly endless string of excuses to justify her behavior?

• Violence and aggression: Methamphetamine affects the central nervous system, which in turn can affect a person’s mood. Look for wild mood swings, hostility or abusive behavior.

• Presence of inhaling and injecting paraphernalia: If you noticed razor blades, mirrors, straws, syringes, spoons or surgical tubing in your child’s room, this is a clear sign of drug abuse — and a cry for help.

• Withdrawal from family and friends: Look for deteriorating relationships with family members and friends. She may be depressed or exhibit a lack of enthusiasm — and not share or express herself as she used to.

• Loss of interest in school and extracurricular activities: Methamphetamine is highly addictive, and many users spend most of their free time looking for a way to find more of the drug. Therefore, interests that were once very important to your child may all of a sudden seem insignificant.

• Problems at school: This can include slipping grades, absenteeism and decreased motivation.

• Missing valuables: For the teen who’s looking to buy drugs, their parents’ house can be a gold mine of resources — from stealing cash from your wallet to swiping valuables like jewelry and heirlooms to pawn.

Long-term use can result in:

• Dependence: If your child can’t function in their day-to-day activities without meth, they are dependent – and possibly addicted.

• Addiction psychosis: This can include a number of disturbing behaviors: hallucinations, paranoia, mood disturbances, and repetitive motor activity. Your child might talk to people who aren’t there or become so paranoid that he won’t leave the house.

• Meth Mouth: The ingredients used to make methamphetamine are dangerous and toxic. Users who often stay high for several days don’t eat and rarely brush their teeth. Tooth decay and rot on tooth surfaces that most people would normally brush is not uncommon. Methamphetamine also causes the mouth to dry out, meaning there’s no saliva to help clean the teeth.

• Severe anorexia: Some teens take methamphetamine to lose weight, and become dependant on the drug. The weight loss can be rather quick and drastic, leaving adolescents looking unhealthy and skeleton-thin.

• Memory loss: Methamphetamine is very toxic and can affect the brain so much that a 16-year-old may begin to show symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s.

• Stroke, liver or heart failure: Methamphetamine puts the body in overdrive, which can fatally damage one’s internal organs.

In all cases of methamphetamine use, a user may experience a loss of inhibitions and a false sense of control and confidence, which can lead to dangerous behavior.

 PH: If parents think their teen may be using meth, what should they do?

 EU: Call a treatment provider like Phoenix House and seek out an assessment. A treatment professional, after talking with your teen, will be able to help you determine the next steps you can take to protect your child’s well-being.

 PH: Is meth easy for teens to access?

EU: Teens report that meth is readily available to them, and once addicted, they will do whatever they feel is necessary to buy more of the drug.

PH: How do young people become addicted to this drug?

EU: When methamphetamine is swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected, it releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, the chemical in the brain responsible for euphoric, happy feelings. Smoking meth produces an immediate, intense sensation, while snorting it provides a longer but less powerful “high.” Meth use and abuse cause dopamine receptors to decrease, so that the user needs larger doses more often to experience the same pleasure. When high, methamphetamine users become more energetic, talkative, and anxious, and the drug increases their heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.

PH: Are there differences between girls and boys in terms of drug of choice?

EU: I have not seen differences between girls and boys related to their drug of choice. However, research has shown that females are likely to become addicted to meth much more quickly than males, sometimes after using for the first time.

PH: What do you do, in addition to working for Phoenix House, to help reduce drug abuse in your community?

EU:  I work as a volunteer in the community helping to coordinate services. I am a member of San Diego County’s Children, Youth, and Families Behavioral Health System of Care Council and I’m on the Executive Committee for San Diego’s Alcohol and Drug Providers’ Association.

Note on the San Diego’s Meth Strike Force Report

Meth is the primary drug of choice of about 32 percent of all clients admitted to treatment in San Diego County.

San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency released a report of its  Methamphetamine Strike Force about ongoing issues with the production, use and deadly effects of this illegal drug. The most troublesome finding was the increase in fatalities, with  217 deaths of meth overdose in 2012, a 27 percent increase from the previous year (171 deaths), and a nearly 50 percent increase when compared with two years earlier. The county has also seen a dramatic increase in the rate of emergency department admissions (up by 12 percent) and of positive tests in adult arrestees (up by 20 percent).

The report also noted changes in a positive direction: the juvenile positive test rate was the lowest in history for two years in a row. It’s a good sign that usage among adolescents continues to decline, but the problem requires continuing alertness and preventive efforts.


If you, or your loved one, need help to deal with addiction and substance abuse issues, please do not hesitate to call us at 1 888 671 9392. You will be connected to  an appropriate admissions counselor in one of our residential or outpatient treatment programs and will be able to talk to caring and experienced professionals. 

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