Film explores teen prescription drug abuse with message for parents


“If Only,” a film about prescription drug abuse in young people, chronicles what producers call “a parent’s worst nightmare.” It follows the lives of two high school students experimenting with painkillers and other pills. A project of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, the 30-minute film screened June 8 at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.

“If Only,” along with resources for how to safely use, store and dispose of prescription medications, is now available for free download at

Foundation director James Wahlberg said the film is a way for parents to get the conversation started with their children. “Some parents have their heads in the sand and think, ‘that could never happen to my kid,’ but this problem affects families across all economic levels, races and communities. Kids are getting into their parents’ medicine cabinets for drugs that were not prescribed for them. That’s where it starts.”

The plot follows Isaac, played by Wahlberg’s son, Jeffrey, as he experiments with different prescription drugs and experiences the different highs that come with them. He also faces peer pressure to attend a party and bring pills.

“How do I know if it’s good stuff?” he poses to his friend, Connor, who replies, “If it says ‘may cause drowsiness’ or ‘do not drink alcohol with ...’ on the labels (bring them to the party).”

Isaac finds prescription medications with such warnings in his mother’s medicine cabinet, and grabs a few for the party “candy dish” — a big bowl filled with pills to be taken at random. Although the film is fictitious, what follows is the all-too-real story of millions of young people who misuse prescription drugs. The material came from research conducted by the Partnership for Drug Free Kids.

“We hope families see this film and become aware of what’s going on in their own medicine cabinets and look at prescriptions they got, for example, after a dental surgery, but don’t need anymore, and look at how to dispose of the pills so they don’t end up in their children’s hands,” Wahlberg said. “When I was a kid, it was a progression. Kids would sneak a beer or maybe smoke a joint and maybe by the time you were 25, you heard about someone you used to know who became an addict. Now kids are starting with the worst drug they could get their hands on at ages 13 and 14, because it’s right there at home, and they are becoming addicted.”

Wahlberg also said teens take different medications that should not be mixed. Mixing benzodiazepines (aka ‘benzos’), such as Valium or Xanax, with opioid-based painkillers, such as Vicodin, can be lethal in young people, he said.

Nikhil Nayak, chief marketing officer for Millennium Health, a partner in the film production, told La Jolla Light that statistics show teenagers think they won’t get in trouble if they get caught with their parents’ drugs because a doctor prescribed them.

An additional danger of misusing certain prescription drugs is the potential progression to drugs like heroin. “With an opioid for example, it’s the same type of high you get from heroin,” Nayak said. “So when kids get them from the medicine cabinets or from friends at parties and misuse the drug, they can get addicted to that feeling. Once the prescription drugs run out, many take to the streets to find something that gives them that same high.”

After viewing the film, panelist and San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said, “I’m sadly reminded of how many times I’ve seen this in real life.

“We’re seeing that prescription drug abuse is the No. 1 cause of accidental death and we’re seeing a rise in use by children and teens. The prescription drugs are in our medicine cabinets, and parents and grandparents leave them around so the children grab them. It doesn’t take long before they get hooked on it.”

Panelist Steven Passik, vice-president of clinical research and advocacy for Millennium Health, said nationally, 1 in 6 teens have used a prescription drug just to get high. He cited increased availability in the last 15 years, as doctors prescribe the drugs. “Twenty years ago, we had the problem of poorly treating pain. In an effort to do something about that, opioid prescription has risen more than 100 percent in the last 10 to 15 years. We started with one public health problem, now we have two — poorly treated pain and prescription drug abuse.”

Denise Cullen, executive director of Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (GRASP), said there are 85 chapters of the support group in the country. “When you lose a child to anything involving drugs, there’s a lot of shame and stigma — not only to the person who died, but also to the family,” she said. “People make assumptions that you were a bad parent or else this wouldn’t have happened to you, and that’s just not true. It can happen to anybody.”

She added that trying to “scare” teenagers into not using drugs has not proven successful. “Teens don’t think this kind of thing will happen to them,” she said. “We need to start being honest with them and explain what drugs do and what can happen in a way that they can trust us, so they can come to us if they’re having an issue.

“We recommend safety first as a motivation for talking to kids; let them know you just want to keep them safe.”

Did You Know?

■ 1 in 6 teens have used a prescription drug not prescribed to them in order to get high or change their mood.

■ 2 of 3 teens who abuse pain relievers say they get them from family members and friends.