Opinion: Why are rich suburban kids doing heroin?

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.  


Alan December 9, 2018 at 10:19 am

I never assumed that opiates were for poor,minority of others.
They have always had a certain appeal and now that the market is flooded with inexpensive product more people use.
You may have lived a very sheltered life. Wwaking up can be hard to do.

Piberman December 9, 2018 at 10:46 am

Rich kids have long done drugs. Just like poor kids. Drugs are major “industries” in CT’s cities feeding the suburban population. As are our major CT college campuses. Without SoNo where would the rich kids and adults of the surrounding Gold Coast towns find their drugs. I-95 and Metro North facilitate the distribution up from NYCity.

So what’s the solution. Just like freely available illegal guns and opiates the costs of “control” seem too high. After all the crime associated with guns and illegal drugs mostly affect the lower incomes. And they’re mostly out of sight in our major depressed CT cities.

Piberman December 9, 2018 at 10:49 am

Drugs are big business in CT. Distribution from NYCity up I-95 and Metro North feeds the inner City suppliers who distribute to the surrounding wealthy towns. So what’s the problem ? Drugs are a major industry in a State with a lackluster economy.

Kathleen December 9, 2018 at 11:25 am

Right, Alan.It is pretty much common knowledge that opiate addiction hits all populations and demographics.

Scarlet ohara December 9, 2018 at 2:27 pm

This really not a new shocking study. Even from the 70’s and on, everyone knew the rich kids were the big users (and dealers) of weed, coke, Molly and now herion. In the late 90’s it was called heroin shiek.

The writer is right about one consistent factor… the parents.

Look at Darien moms when told they couldn’t lunch with their kids every day because it was interference, they had serious mental breakdowns. Totally unequipped to let their children grow up.

These type of parents haven’t changed in the affluent towns over the years (does the depressing “ice storm” seem familiar?). But the reader does seem to be full of elitism, how could anyone not living in their towns ever suspect their lives not to be perfect. Get over yourself with this narsistic commentary.

Bujji December 9, 2018 at 3:36 pm

You wanna know why? Because they are stupid and naive.

And that’s exactly what you are if you think it won’t happen to you no matter where you come from and/or how much money you might have.

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