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Health and Psychiatric Issues in Children of Rural Methamphetamine Abusers and Manufacturers

Health and Psychiatric Issues in Children of Rural Methamphetamine Abusers and Manufacturers

Methamphetamine (also known as "crystal,"
"meth," "ice," or "speed"
) is a highly addictive form of amphetamine with strong effects on the CNS. Methamphetamine initially causes feelings of euphoria, decreases in fatigue and appetite, and increases in energy and alertness that last considerably longer than similar effects of cocaine.1-4 Regular use, however, has serious effects on the brain, which may account for the behavioral and psychiatric symptoms often associated with methamphetamine abuse.5 Abusers may experience psychosis; depression; intense paranoia; visual and auditory hallucinations; rapid mood changes; irritability; out-of-control rages; and suicidal, repetitive, and violent behavior.1,3,6 Methamphetamine's ability to disrupt normal brain functioning can be long lasting, and psychotic symptoms may persist for months or years after drug use has ended.2,3,7 Prenatal exposure to methamphetamine is associated with a 3.5-fold increase in low birth weight and is often associated with neurodevelopmental results such as behavioral and cognitive deficits.8

Methamphetamine production and abuse has become a serious problem in many rural communities.1,9 The production of methamphetamine takes place in "laboratories"
that are often located in rural areas to avoid detection because powerful fumes are emitted during the manufacturing process; these areas also offer access to precursors used in methamphetamine production, such as anhydrous ammonia (a common fertilizer). Methamphetamine is relatively easy to produce, and instructions can even be downloaded from the Internet.

Many abusers of methamphetamine in rural areas manufacture the drug for their personal use. These "mom-and-pop cooks"
produce methamphetamine in and around homes where
children are also living.6,9-13 This article provides an overview of the mental health of children whose parents abuse methamphetamine.

Health and safety consequences
The rise of methamphetamine production and abuse has taken a serious toll on children. Rural law enforcement officers and health, mental health, and child welfare professionals are encountering more children who live in homes where methamphetamine is produced and abused.1,6,14

Children whose parents abuse methamphetamine are exposed to a variety of risks. They may be exposed to severe neglect from parents who are preoccupied with obtaining and using the drug and who may sleep for days after
bingeing. Children living in these homes may have no running water, limited and unsafe electrical power, extremely poor sanitation, and little food.11 Children may also be exposed to persons abusing a variety of other substances, such as alcohol and marijuana. Violence, including severe domestic violence, is common among methaphetamine abusers, and children understandably find such exposure particularly troubling.10 As parents become
increasingly ill, children may also be exposed to criminal behaviors that are associated with their parents' drug
seeking.10,14 Children may also experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from their substance-abusing parents and other users who frequent the home.6,9,11-13

In addition to these significant risk factors (which are similar to those experienced by many children whose parents abuse other illicit substances), children whose parents are abusing methamphetamine may experience some relatively unique risks because:

  • Methamphetamine is highly addictive and parents may become rapidly disabled, for example, by developing psychosis. This can be both frightening and dangerous for children who may have little time to adapt to rapidly deteriorating parental functioning.10,14
  • Methamphetamine may be produced in homes, which exposes children to unique health and safety risks. Children may be exposed to dangerous conditions, such as toxic chemicals, explosions, and fire from the manufacturing of methamphetamine.6,9,11-13
  • Children may be exposed to relatively high levels of adult criminality in and around the home. Parents' drug production often involves other illegal behaviors, such as stealing ingredients to make methamphetamine. Children may be brought into these activities directly by being taught to steal or more indirectly as they witness their parents' illegal activities and arrests.14
  • Children may face long-term or permanent separation from parents who are serving extended prison terms, experiencing serious illnesses, or deceased.14 Despite difficult and complex relationships, many children express love, longing, and concern for their parents.15

Psychiatric consequences
Children exposed to parental methamphetamine abuse can experience significant psychological stress. Mental health problems may include dissociative or other posttraumatic symptoms. Other significant emotional and behavioral problems may include thought and attention problems, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior. In addition, many children report having emotional pain, few social resources for coping or understanding problems involving their families, and avoidant or passive coping strategies.15


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