The Prevalence of Substance Misuse and Addiction in Sports

Jessica Joiner, LCSW, LAC, has over a decade of experience working with those suffering from addiction, complex trauma, and co-occurring disorders. She uses her experience along with the extensive skills gained to address the many issues that arise for athletes.

In her workshop hosted by Harmony Foundation, Joiner discussed the prevalence of substance misuse among athletes, various ways of identifying “red flags,” and evidence-based interventions that can be helpful in combating the misuse of drugs and alcohol.

As Joiner explained, there are three main reasons athletes misuse substances: pain resulting from injuries, stress from incessant pressure to win, and the desire to enhance performance artificially. Over the years and decades, these reasons have stayed the same but the drugs involved are now more sophisticated than ever, with more options.

The statistics paint a grim picture. Substance misuse is prevalent in high school: approximately 19 percent of males and 14 percent of females binge drink in high school. 21 percent of teens use marijuana and up to 6.6 percent have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

It gets worse in college where 42 percent of students admit to binge drinking, 28 percent use cannabis, and around 11,000 NCAA athletes admit to taking PEDs. There is a strong correlation between concussions and alcohol use. “Having a concussion is actually predictive for alcohol use,” said Joiner. “If a high school student is entering college with a history of concussion, and we know about the correlation, we could put some measure in place to intervene before things get out of control. We don’t want them to get overwhelmed by the pressure of performing and the grades required to continue.” It’s much better to support them on the front end before things get out of hand.

Should players get drafted into the National Football League, the pain from injuries, the pressure to win, and the temptation to use PEDs get even worse. In the NFL, 51 percent of players use opioids and 71 percent of those athletes admit to misusing them. Many of the pills are not prescribed by medical doctors: 68 percent say they got them from other sources.

It takes only a few days to get addicted to opioids, Joiner warned, and professional athletes have easy access. Professional athletes tend to play through the pain and then “fix it” with opioids and other substances after the game, putting themselves at risk for greater injury and addiction.

Joiner then went over the possible consequences of such risky behavior, which include the impact on performance, health, relationships, and career—and in the worst-case scenario, death.

While substances were initially taken to enhance or maintain performance, escalating use will eventually compromise performance and wreak havoc with the athlete’s health. As is the case for all people with substance use disorder, addiction has “a definite negative impact on relationships.” If there is no intervention and treatment, players may end up with legal problems, a league suspension, or just get kicked off their team.

There are many examples of athletes falling into this trap. Former Boston Celtic Chris Herren struggled with substance misuse for much of his NBA career. While playing for the Celtics, Herren started to use opioid painkillers. In December 2007, he was charged with possession of heroin in Rhode Island and in the following June, Herren overdosed on heroin in Fall River, Massachusetts. According to the attending paramedics, he was clinically dead for 30 seconds.

Abby Wambach—widely considered the best female soccer player ever—was arrested for driving under the influence in 2016. Following the incident, Wambach published an autobiography revealing that she had misused prescription drugs and alcohol for many years.

After going into recovery, Herren started raising awareness of drug addiction and has now spoken to over one million students, athletes, and community members, promoting frank discussions about substance use disorder and wellness.

In the webinar, Joiner, too, stressed the importance of prevention and early intervention to attack this problem. Prevention should include educating everybody involved to raise awareness of mental health issues that often drive substance misuse, so parents, teachers, and coaches learn to recognize red flags. “From the outside, it often looks like they have everything”, explained Joiner. That’s why depression and anxiety disorders are often overlooked. Testing, screening and other interventions should be used in a supportive, not punitive way.

“We should stop just being reactive and be more proactive,” Joiner said. Coaches and trainers of athletes should not wait for a crisis to unfold and athletic programs should provide adequate mental health services for players (and other students). Treatment should not be perceived as punishment for bad behavior but as a concerted effort to heal psychological problems. “We need effective collaboration between therapists, doctors, school departments, and the community that facilitates integrated care,” Joiner said. Currently, too many people fall through the cracks because many athletic departments don’t provide nearly enough mental health professionals. Ultimately, a culture shift is required: our society’s approach to athletic injuries and mental illness needs to change significantly and we need more trauma-informed and stigma-free care—and not only for athletes.

American Medicine Chest Challenge


It is rare these days when reading a newspaper or magazine to not come across a story about the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that is devastating families across the country. The scourge of opioid use is unprecedented in modern times, and health organizations and lawmakers continue to search for effective solutions to the problem. Every day, 44 people in the U.S. die from prescription opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Keeping prescription opioids out of the hands of teenagers and young adults is ever important; exposure to such drugs can result in addiction and/or overdose. For over a decade, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has held the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. On such days, individuals can safely dispose of unused and unwanted medications that may otherwise end up in the wrong hands. On September 26, 2015, the agency reported that its take-back sites collected more than 350 tons (702,365 pounds) of unneeded medications.

The DEA is not alone; other organizations are hard at work to reduce prescription drug misuse as well. On Saturday, November 14 the American Medicine Chest Challenge (AMCC) will hold the sixth-annual National Day of Awareness and Safe Disposal, according to a news release. The initiative is calling on Americans to safely dispose of their unwanted medications at more than 1,500 Rx permanent collection sites throughout the country.

You can find a directory of collection sites on the AMCC website or download the organizations free app: AMCC Rx Drop. The AMCC also provides prescription drug abuse prevention information on their website.

Families are being called upon to take the 5-Step American Medicine Chest Challenge:

(1) Take inventory of their prescription and over-the-counter medicine
(2) Secure their medicine
(3) Dispose of unused, unwanted, and expired medicine in their home or at an AMCC disposal site
(4) Take their medicine(s) exactly as prescribed
(5) Talk to their children about the dangers of prescription drug abuse

If you are or a loved one is abusing prescription opioids, please contact Harmony Foundation to begin the journey of recovery. Harmony is a state-of-the-art, affordable, residential addiction treatment program located in the Rocky Mountains.

Addiction and recovery news provided by Harmony Foundation.

People with Chronic Pain Find It Difficult to Get Their Medication


Prescription drug abuse continues to plague Americans in all 50 states, and effective measures to combat the problem appear to be a double edged sword. On the one hand: prescription drug monitoring programs and more cautious prescribing practices have served to reduce abuse and/or overdoses. On the other hand: effective harm reduction policies are making it harder for those with legitimate chronic pain to get the medications they need.

Florida was once considered to be the easiest place to acquire prescription opioids, such as OxyContin ® (oxycodone), due to a plethora of “pill mills” (pain management clinics that will dispense narcotics onsite) and overprescribing doctors. In an attempt to reverse the trend, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came down on the state with a firm hand, shutting down more than 250 pill mills, PBS NewsHour reports.

The DEA went after doctors and pharmacies that were, what the agency considered, writing and dispensing too many pills. The nationwide pharmacies, CVS and Walgreens, paid civil penalties for record-keeping violations of the Controlled Substances Act. Walgreens paid an $80 million penalty and CVS paid an $11 million penalty, according to the article.

The result, pharmacies were warned to not cross DEA dispensing ceilings, or face penalties. In Florida, an independent pharmacy owner in Jacksonville, Bill Napier, says the amount of drugs he needs to supply his clients is not being provided by drug wholesalers who supply his store. What’s more, the DEA approached Napier last year regarding the amount narcotics he dispensed.

“They showed me a number, and they said that if I wasn’t closer to the state average, they would come back. So I got pretty close to the state average,” he said. “I turn away sometimes 20 people a day.” 

The acting deputy administrator of the DEA, Jack Riley, claims that his agency is not to blame for the medication rationing, according to the article.

“I’m not a doctor. We do not practice medicine. We’re not pharmacists. We obviously don’t get involved in that,” he said. “What we do do is make sure the people that have the licenses are as educated as possible as to what we’re seeing, and that they can make informed decisions as they do dispense.”


If you are currently struggling with opioids and are in need of help, please do not hesitate to contact Harmony Foundation to begin the journey of recovery. Harmony is a state-of-the-art, affordable, residential addiction treatment program located in the Rocky Mountains.

Prescription Drug Overdose Deaths Rise in 26 States

In a number of states, especially the ones hardest hit by prescription opioid abuse, drastic measure have been taken to curb the problem. While such efforts have shown promise, such as prescription drug monitoring programs and greater access to naloxone, many states are still seeing a rise in overdose deaths. New research suggests that the number of drug overdose deaths rose in 26 states between 2009 and 2013, Reuters reports. Only six states saw a decrease in overdose deaths during the same time period.

The study was conducted by the nonprofit group Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their findings indicated that an estimated 44,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2013, a figure which is more than double the number found in 1999. Drug overdoses were responsible for more deaths in 36 states than motor vehicle-related deaths, according to the article.

In 2013, almost 52 percent of overdose deaths were related to prescription drugs. The two types of prescription drugs that were linked to the majority of overdoses were opioid painkillers and benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications, such as OxyContin ® (oxycodone) and Xanax ® (alprazolam). The study found that more than 16,000 deaths were related to opioids and almost 7,000 were tied to benzodiazepines and sleep medications.

The report clearly shows the need for more access and training to the life saving overdose reversal drug naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan ®. There are 34 states and D.C. which have laws in place to expand access to, and use of, naloxone, according to the study. 

Prescription Drug Abuse Treatment 

If you are currently struggling with prescription drugs, and are need of help, please do not hesitate to contact Harmony Foundation to begin the journey of recovery. Harmony is a state-of-the-art, affordable, residential addiction treatment program located in the Rocky Mountains.

Addiction and recovery news provided by Harmony Foundation

Prescription Stimulants Taking a Toll on Young Adults

Young adults are increasingly at risk of prescription drug abuse. This has been proven especially true for prescription stimulant drugs like Adderall and Ritalin.

Young adults use these drugs as a study aid or “party aid” because they allow them to stay awake longer. Normally indicated for Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), Adderall and Ritalin contain amphetamine salts and similar chemical compounds which increase the amount of dopamine circulating in the brain. They help those with A.D.D focus, but give the feeling of hyper-alertness for those without A.D.D.

The number of young adults visiting the emergency room after abusing stimulants has quadrupled over the past 6 years – from 5,600 visits in 2005 to 23,000 in 2011. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) attributes this rise to young adults having greater access to stimulants. According to their data, in 2011 the majority of young adults had access to stimulants by getting them from friends and relatives.

Peter J. Delany of SAMHSA says the rise is pronounced among those 18-25 years old. Unfortunately, many young adults aren’t aware of the health and legal consequences of abusing stimulants. In many states, possessing just one pill without a prescription is a felony charge and having as few as 5 pills can be considered trafficking.

The health consequences can also be severe – especially when combined with alcohol. Many young adults end up visiting the emergency room with palpitations, severe anxiety, paranoia and heart and blood vessel problems. Some even end up with psychosis after taking too much over an extended period of time and some get alcohol poisoning because stimulants mask the effects of being drunk.

For a young adult, the legal and health consequences can be lifelong. What often starts out as innocent use of stimulants – such as using them during finals at college – can quickly turn into not-so-innocent consequences because of the addictive nature of stimulants.

At Harmony Foundation we understand the consequences of addiction among young adults, which is why we have created special Young Adult Recovery Track. We help bring young adults back from the often-quick downward spiral of prescription drug abuse.