Top Secret Project takes unique look into the teen domain

The Top Secret Project unlocked potential dangers of several items found in teens’ bedrooms, such as this necklace (front) that doubles as a marijuana pipe.
(Karen Billing)

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Carmel Valley recently hosted The Top Secret Project, in which top addiction specialists work to uncover the mysteries in teens’ bedrooms and show how 150 seemingly harmless items, such as an apple or a can of dust cleaner, could be potentially hazardous in a teen’s domain.

Specialist Jessica Wong, the regional director of business development for Hazelden Betty Ford and Cendee Palmer, the outreach manager for Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota, said typically they set up a mock teen’s bedroom with all of the items on display for parents to explore. Taking the show on the road made it a little more challenging but they still packed a lot of the warning sign items and a lot of useful information for the clinicians and parents present on June 28.

“We couldn’t possibly talk about every item that a teen uses to either do drugs or that could be harmful or a potential warning sign for some other behavior they’re engaged in,” Wong said. “The conversation that we have with parents is to think about the environment that they have in their home and, in particular, in their son or daughter’s bedroom and look at things differently: What could this really be? What could this be a sign of and how can I interpret this and get ahead of some of the things that kids are doing, to help get them help earlier and to keep our kids healthy.”

The presentation looked at different drug delivery systems that kids could have lying around their room, such as trumpet mouthpieces, inhalers, highlighters, fruit such as apples, and wearable jewelry that doubles as a pipe.

Top Secret also showed parents what some teens are using for drug storage, such as books with pages carved out, lip balm containers, fake Coke cans, “dupe tubes” that look like feminine hygiene products, and clothing like hats that have secret compartments for stashing drugs.

Other items in the Top Secret Project included dust cleaner that some teens are using as an inhalant or finding toilet bowl cleaner or laxatives in a bedroom that could point to a potential eating disorder.

“We’re looking for a combination of items,” Wong said, noting that if you walk into a teen’s room and find an apple it doesn’t mean they’re smoking marijuana with it. “But if you find an apple with holes in it, it smells funny and your kid has been acting weird, you might have a scenario you might want to respond to.”

In addition to smoking joints and pipes, Palmer shared the multitude of ways that teens are using marijuana, including in vape pens, edibles, THC drinks and marijuana wax. The wax, which teens are making on their own thanks to online instruction videos, is highly concentrated and can be smoked or inhaled.

Although some states are cracking down on edibles that too closely market to children, Palmer said there is a lot of risk for youth associated with edibles. She gave the example of a marijuana gummy bear — one bear has enough to get one person high but it takes much longer to go through the metabolic system. Younger users that are unaware will tend to pop more than one candy which can lead to THC intoxication or poisoning.

In Colorado, emergency room visits for accidental poisoning due to marijuana ingestion under the age of 12 has increased 25 percent since recreational marijuana became legalized.

Wong also talked about the rise of prescription drug abuse among teens.

“Opioid use is not new….When I started at Hazelden 13 years ago about 10 percent of our clients were admitted for treatment from adolescent young adult perspective for dependence to heroin,” Wong said “At this point, 50 to 60 percent of our clients are admitted with opioid dependence. The difference between what was happening 13 years ago and what’s happening now is the connection that heroin has to the prescription medications that are often times legitimately prescribed for real pain.”

The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone and 99 percent of hydrocodone. In 2015, there were 52,000 deaths in one year from opioid overdoses, more than the 38,000 who died in car crashes and more than the 43,000 who died during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1995.

Wong said sometimes when she gives this presentation, she is approached by parents who say that the information is helpful but their child is still pretty young. She points to a statistic that 13 percent of those with substance abuse disorders began by using marijuana by the time they were 14 years old.

“It’s really easy to get into the mindset that ‘This is not my kid, this is not my family, this is not my neighborhood.’ Addiction and mental health are not issues that only effect a certain types of people in certain places. It can happen to all of us,” Wong said stressing the importance of awareness for parents. “The reality is, every kid that enters one of our treatment facilities across the country, the parent has at one point said ‘That will never be my kid.’”

Wong said she often hears pushback from parents about not wanting to go into their child’s room or invade their privacy. She said being aware of their space doesn’t mean tearing rooms apart or doing prison-style searches. As a parent she said she could communicate with her daughters via text message but instead she goes into their room to ask what they want for dinner, talks to them and takes note of their environment and their behavior.

“The safety of our kids trumps their privacy,” Wong said, using a powerful example from Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters.

In her book, “A Mother’s Reckoning,” Klebold said she might have been able to do something to prevent the tragedy that happened if she had seen before two items she found in his room after his death. One was his stash of St. John’s Wort, showing that he had been trying to seek relief for his depression on his own. The second was a pack of cigarettes which gave her chills because she had suspected he had been smoking and she had asked him several times and he had always said no. When she found the cigarettes, she became aware of how capable he was of lying.

Wong said often times parents don’t want to upset their kids but they need to initiate conversations, listen to their children, create an open environment for communication and offer a voice of reason.

“Be a parent, not a friend,” Wong said. “If I’m not my daughters’ mom, they won’t have one.”

Wong said even though they painted a “heavy picture” about the challenges teens face today, she said it’s important to remember that most teens feel good about the future.

“Most kids don’t engage in dangerous behaviors that can be harmful to their health,” Wong said. “There are a lot of kids who are doing the right thing and making the right choices.”