Some psychologists say teen abuse may rise after hearing

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

CLEVELAND -- Steroid use among high school students is on the rise, and experts warn that the recent focus on major league baseball's drug problems will only make such use increase.

While congressmen who questioned former home run king Mark McGwire and others say their goal was to curb use among teenagers, last week's hearings increased awareness of steroids -- and that will lead more youngsters to try them, said Tracy Olrich, a sports psychologist at Central Michigan University.

"I saw very little accomplished," Olrich said. "It was unclear exactly what the point of it all was."

But Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the second-ranking Republican on the House Government Reform Committee that held the hearings, rejected such criticism.

"That's pretty naive," Shays said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "That's like saying my children, when they grew up, didn't know about sex. The kids know about this stuff, and the problem is: What are we going to do about it?"

Steroid use among high school students more than doubled from 1991 to 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 6 percent of the 15,000 students in grades 9-12 who responded to the CDC's 2003 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey acknowledged taking steroid pills or shots at least once.

"I think we've had a million kids who've cycled on these drugs," said Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State University and an expert on steroid use. Cycling means that they've used them over a 6-12 week period or longer.

Yesalis, who gave that estimate to Congress during testimony March 10, said he thought when former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids and was stripped of his Olympic 100-meter gold medal in 1988 that there would be a backlash against performance-enhancing drugs.

"It had the opposite effect," Yesalis said.

He expects baseball's steroids scandal to lead more young athletes to try steroids as well.

"Now that it's in the news every day, (teenagers) equate steroids with doing well in sports, making lots of money and being successful," said JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist who works with athletes at Stanford, though she added that Congress needed to address the issue.

She counsels youngsters and sees the side effects of steroids, such as anger and depression.

"The effects are devastating," she said. "They come to me because they've gotten caught or are worried about getting caught or are having problems. Sometimes they can't handle their aggression. Their anger gets out of control."

Yesalis said, similar to pro sports, most people acknowledge there's a steroid problem in high schools but think only other schools are involved. He calls it the "not-in-my-school phenomenon."

Less than 4 percent of the nation's high schools test students for steroids, according to a 2003 survey of athletic directors by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

"Because of the already serious constraints on our school systems, testing is probably out of the question for most school districts," Yesalis said of tests that cost at least $100 each.

A lack of testing means that teenagers are rarely caught using steroids.

"It's almost a 'don't ask, don't tell' mentality," said Chad Zimmerman, a former Carnegie Mellon offensive lineman.

Zimmerman, who says he never used steroids, remembers the pressure to improve his performance -- pressure that came from coaches and teammates, as well as from within himself.

He and a former suburban Cleveland high school teammate, Nick Palazzo, said they got little guidance on safe ways of reaching their peak potential. So the two started STACK magazine to provide young athletes with alternatives to steroids.

The magazine features advice from top athletic trainers and is distributed to 3,100 high schools across the country. The premiere issue last month featured LeBron James' high school training regimen as its lead story.

"Everybody's pretty much aware that there's going to be athletes on your own team or the other team that are going to be using (steroids)," Zimmerman said.

Several high school students in Buckeye, Ariz., in the fall of 2003 and in Grapevine, Texas, last month admitted using steroids, in each case only after the mother of a player found steroids in her son's room.

"You could do that story in any town of 20,000 or more," Yesalis said. "Any high school is going to have a handful of steroid users."

Yesalis acknowledged there are greater health problems facing high schools, such as alcohol abuse, but he said that doesn't mean steroids should be ignored.

"This is more of a moral and ethical problem than a public health problem," he said.

One of the difficulties in discouraging the use of steroids is that they are effective in building muscle and strength, Yesalis said. It's also tough to frighten kids by warning about side effects such as cancer, severe acne and shrinking of the testicles.

Although there have been deaths associated with steroids -- such as the highly publicized suicide of Texas high school baseball player Taylor Hooton -- those cases are rare.

"Mom and dad have to give the message that it's cheating and false glory," Yesalis said. "If you don't do that, the kid can see through this pretty quick."

On the Net:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

National Federation of State High School Associations:

STACK magazine:

AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.

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