Time Out: July 25, 2012

With the media spotlight shining on the alleged high profile steroid use cases of professional sports stars like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong, an important back story is sliding under the radar. The use of Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs (APEDs) by high school students in America is skyrocketing.

Although the numbers vary, studies in recent years by the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, Texas A&M, Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, and the U.S. News and World Report each conclude that teenage use of APEDs or steroids is soaring. The CDC report says 11 percent of all males in high school have tried some form of APED with at least six percent of all using steroids throughout a complete six to eight-week cycle.

It would be easy to turn your head and assume the use of APEDs, including steroids, by high school students is something that occurs away for home. Many believe our small rural Catskill Mountain towns, personal and intimate, emit an aura of safety and security insulating teens from the use of APED’s. Not so.

Dr. Charles E. Yesalis helped pioneer studies on teens and steroids as far back as the 1980s. In conversations with school officials and parents over the years, Yesalis acknowledges broad understanding that the use of APEDs by teens is problematic. But, when evaluating the possibility of the abuse of APEDs in their own communities, Yesalis, says these same adults are in a state of denial. “There may be a problem somewhere else but not here. It’s always somebody else’s kid. It’s always somebody else’s school.” is the typical response to Yesalis’s warnings.

“If I had $100 for every time a parent, high school principal or coach said to me during the past 27 years, “Doc, it’s a problem, but not in our school,” I’d have a Ferrari sitting in my driveway,” Yesalis told the Houston Chronicle.

Numerous circumstances shape a nurturing environment that can make it easy for kids to access and use APEDs. To start with, teens use steroids for reasons society would view as positive values; winning and success. A strong parental mindset for winning and performance enhancement can actually facilitate teenage use.

Coaches, too, are part of the problem. What some term the “professionalization of youth sport,” a shift from producing better people to producing better performances with an eye only on a payoff sometime down the line, overemphasizes winning. Coaches are often unaware of the problem or choose to look the other way.

Few preventive programs with the impact to connect with kids where they are at and simple internet accessibility of anabolic substances, steroids, human growth hormones and supplements shape an environment where for many teens the use of APED’s is the norm.

Some make the mistake of believing teenage use of APEDs is a guys’ thing. Studies indicate more than five percent of all high school girls have used APEDs and females are the fastest growing user group. It is estimated that nine percent of high school girls who play basketball have used APEDs.
Some make the mistake of believing the use of APEDs is primarily an athletic problem. Although the desire to bulk up to gain an advantage on the courts and playing fields is a strong motivation, it is estimated that up to one half of all teenage APED users have no interest in competing on the athletic field but are very interested in competing for the attention of the opposite sex. Just as many teens use APEDs to look fit and buff as do those looking for an athletic edge. In fact, non-athletes who use APEDs are often called ‘mirror athletes,’ teens who hope to look in the mirror and see an athletic profile staring back at them.

New Jersey is one of the few states to administer a state-wide high school testing program. Bob Baly, an assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association identifies secrecy as another factor complicating the issue. “One of the things we’ve discovered,” says Baly, “is that with street drugs, kids often boast to their friends. I had an incredible high last night. There is absolutely nobody coming in and saying, “I took steroids last night.”

Ignoring the dangers
Many teens and their parents are unclear of the dangers posed in taking APEDs. Steroid use can cause liver disease, can be attributed to increases of bad cholesterol and decreases in good cholesterol, might decrease testicular size and reduce sperm count, and cause impotence. Using APEDs can also alter one’s personality causing mood swings, excessive aggression, paranoia, irritability, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

A perpetual drive to become bigger, faster, and stronger, to enhance one’s physical appearance, and to improve athletic performance is a strong allure. In theory, Americans hold sportsmanship is high regard. In reality a win-at-all-cost mentality often becomes more important than the character building, integrity and esteem building associated with fair play.

What can parents do? First, they must accept the possibility their teen or other teens in their child’s school might be using APEDs. The ostrich syndrome of putting one’s head in the sand is never helpful. Next, parents must educate themselves so they understand the facts and the myths about APED use. Then, it is important to open the lines of communication with your child and talk about what you and your child know. Finally, pay careful attention to the warning signals that might indicate possible APED use. Those signs include the obvious, excessive time spent in the gym or a sudden increase of muscle mass.

Other signs are more subtle. APED use often brings about an increase in acne, especially on the back. Personality changes including mood swings, excessive irritability or aggression and increases of private, secluded behavior, that might indicate the use of APEDs.