With drug overdoses now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, it's more important than ever to empower teens to help their friends and siblings who may be struggling with an opioid painkiller or heroin problem. Since those addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin, the sooner teens can help, the sooner they can save a life from a fatal overdose.

“Many, many times, it's legitimate use of (opioid painkillers), whether it had been oral surgery or an accident or sports injury, but that's absolutely what we're seeing across the country, across the state, and here in our county,” according to Becky Carlson, executive director Center for Prevention and Counseling in Sussex County, New Jersey.

“And that switch from using for pain to getting addicted isn't a hard one,” she said, “especially if you're getting too much of it.”

Both New York State and New Jersey are cracking down on how much of a prescription painkiller supply can be prescribed, according to David Hoover, district attorney for Orange County, New York.

The problem is heroin is just as powerful as prescription painkillers, and it is much, much cheaper. On the street, a 30 mg oxycodone pill can sell for about $60, Hoovler said, but an equivalent dose of heroin costs between $5 and $10 — cheaper than a pack of cigarettes.

Another common misconception, Hoovler said, is that teens have to use syringes and shoot heroin intravenously. He said more and more, teens are snorting heroin.

How to help

If a teen suspects their friend or sibling has a problem with painkillers or heroin, the first thing they should do is try to talk to them.

“If they're their friend, they've seen changes, they've seen different things that are going on or they just might know because the person is telling them,” Carlson said. “It's just being able to sit down with their friend and talking with them and see if they can work with them to get them help.

“And knowing too that it's not their fault, the friend or sibling's fault they can't solve the problem,” Carlson continued, “but they can help them find some help. And just letting them know that they're concerned about a friend and concerned about what's going on, that's really important — that they're not turning away or ignoring it.”

If the teen feels they can't have that conversation, the next step is to talk to a trusted, responsible adult. This can be a parent or a trusted adult at their school, such as a teacher or a coach.

Jessica Wright is a health teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School, one of the largest high schools in Orange County. In their district, like in most school districts, there are guidance counselors, school counselors and social workers that students can turn to who can help their friend.

With 90 percent of prescription drug addictions starting in teenage years, and over 70 percent of teens say it's easy to get prescription drugs from their parents' medicine cabinets, the sooner a friend speaks up, the sooner they can help their friend avoid a switch to heroin, or worse, a fatal overdose.

“I think kids don't want to rat on their friends, but when we're talking about opioids, the likelihood of an overdose is very good,” Wright said. “They're not tattle taling, they're saving their friend's life.”

If a teen still feels like they can't talk to a trusted adult at home or at school, there are local resources aimed at helping teens deal with this very situation.

At the Center for Prevention and Counseling, teens can call and ask for Jane, the Adolescent Youth Coordinator. There is also the Sussex County Division of Community and Youth Services and Newton Medical Center Behavioral Health.

In Orange County, teens can reach out to the Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Council, the Orange County Department of Mental Health or the Orange County Mental Health Association.

There are also anonymous hotlines that teens can call. The Orange County Youth Bureau and United Way have sponsored a “Text 4 Teens,” hotline, where teens experiencing any problems in school, at home, or just need someone to talk to can text or call.

In New Jersey, teens can call Second Floor, an anonymous youth hotline for those who need assistance helping a friend, or need help dealing with other issues like cyberbullying, dating abuse or mental health.

Help and resources are available.