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Young adults on drugs: many don't ask for help

Deborah Jefferson had waited a long time for the job. Now here she was, a secretary in a Manhattan business, making a decent salary. Except that when she saw her first paycheck, she realized most of it would go toward buying heroin.

''I would end up killing myself if I didn't stop (using the drug),'' says Miss Jefferson, who was introduced to heroin by a friend when she was in high school about 10 years ago.

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Today Miss Jefferson is ''drug free.'' She's back at work in the business world. And, as she speaks radiantly of her coming wedding, she looks nothing like a former drug user.

Miss Jefferson was strong enough to decide to do something about her drug abuse. And with the help of a program in New York City, she has straightened her life out. But young adults do not always seek help, particularly when they are using drugs such as cocaine or marijuana. And because of the stigma of drug addiction, some experts say, there is less support from society for such programs than there is for programs that deal with ''acceptable'' problems, such as alcoholism.

More than 28 percent of young adults between 18 and 25 have tried cocaine, and 6.8 percent say they currently take the drug, according to the National Clearinghouse for Drug Abuse Information. Some 4.2 million Americans are regular cocaine users, and half of those are between 18 and 25.

Marijuana has a high usage rate - more than 64 percent of those 18 to 25 years old have tried the drug, as have 23 percent of those 26 and over.

It is harder to get a reading on the number of heroin users in the United States. One estimate is that there are some 500,000.

The toll on society is high monetarily. One estimate is that drug abuse costs the country $26 billion each year - $16 billion in lost productivity, $2 billion in medical expenses, and $7 billion in crime costs. Others say these figures are conservative.

One expert points out that there is a generation of drug users who are parents, Wall Street traders, transportation workers, teachers. A high school teacher proudly told this reporter that one of the three things in life he is best at is ''rolling joints'' (marijuana cigarettes).

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''It is pretty clear that our culture is the largest consumer of drugs known to mankind,'' says Kevin McEneaney, director of clinical services at Phoenix House, a drug abuse agency with facilities in New York and California.

Phoenix House is based on a self-help model, with the premise that what cures a drug addict is rooted in his or her initiative, Mr. McEneaney says. In addition to residential treatment and services for youth, the agency has an adult outpatient clinic in New York. It was here that Deborah Jefferson managed to quit using drugs.

To qualify for the outpatient program, the clinic considers the type and amount of drug use and the ''infrastructure'' of a person's life, such as family , working history, or school performance. The patient is assigned a counselor, and comes in two to three nights a week for sessions with others. Once every two weeks the client also brings to a session a ''significant other'' - a spouse, a boss, a relative, or a close friend - as a support. The program is based on counseling and therapy. No drugs are used.

Heroin users, such as Miss Jefferson, are an exception in the outpatient program. About 80 percent of the clients use cocaine or pills, and sometimes mix these with alcohol.

The clients range from young professionals in service industries to computer experts to electrical linemen.

Miss Jefferson, who has graduated from the program, now works as a counselor in the evening. She lives a busy life similar to many young women her age. She reads novels and autobiographies. She loves to listen to music.

''Eighty percent jazz and 20 percent classical,'' she says with a smile. Miss Jefferson has come a long way since the days when she was trying to live in both the straight and the drug worlds.

''I grew up,'' she says quietly. ''I faced facts.'' She also learned that she had a lot of strength to battle the problem. Miss Jefferson says she realized she could be sober, that she had a brain, that she was very intelligent.

''I would make huge mistakes, but I could fix them,'' she says. ''I could be a success. I was independent, and responsible for myself.''

This realization came partly from the constant reinforcement the group at the Phoenix House gave her. Part of the therapy is to continually drill in confidence.

In fact, low self-esteem is one factor many experts point to in connection with drug abuse. Many point to the sense of power that drug users feel.

Drugs ''make people feel very powerful,'' McEneaney says.

Programs to help young adults are becoming more common, from Los Angeles to New York. Because of the numbers of workers who are drug users, some businesses are offering help through employee assistance programs. And some have introduced educational programs and are training employees and management to detect drug use.

But, say some experts, many companies still are more willing to focus on alcohol problems that drug abuse. Alcoholics are sometimes looked upon as poor, benign individuals, while drug users are considered ''raving thieves,'' McEneaney says.

Too often these companies will send a drug user to a hospital program for a month and then expect the worker to come back to work with no follow-up planned.

''Regular drug usage is a serious, serious problem,'' says McEneaney. ''It takes a long time to get over - not just 20 to 30 days. It requires long-term monitoring and care.''

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