Anabolic steroids, used increasingly by local high school students for body enhancement, could be contributing to a recent rash of attempted suicides by Salt Lake area teens, mental health officials warn.

In fact, area police ordered toxicology tests to check for substance abuse in two 17-year-old athletes who recently killed themselves with firearms. Hospital psychiatric counselors, seeking to halt the illegal sale of the mind-altering drugs, are working with law officers to identify and prosecute those who illegally sell the drugs to high school students.Several leads are being investigated.

"My impression is that the steroids are getting to the high schools from athletes who have previously attended those schools and want to help out the team's performance," said Rick Garrett, a primary counselor at Wasatch Canyon Hospital's Dayspring program.

"I would like to think they know what steroid abuse can do. But apparently they don't - or don't care."

Medical specialists stress that steroid abuse should not be taken lightly. Steroids can adversely affect the body and minds of youths.

"They give you a kind of sense of power, of invincibility. You become extremely irritable and aggressive in your behavior, with uncontrollable outbreaks of rage and anger. You are very easily provoked," said Dr. George J. Van Komen. chairman of the Utah Medical Association's controlled-substance committee.

"Steroids alter the mind to the point you just don't think appropriately, and your behavior becomes distorted."

Van Komen said the drugs, administered to German soldiers to give them a "super-power sensation" during World War II, help athletes train and work harder. Users do not become as easily fatigued.

But users' moods are altered by the drugs, which produce tremendous highs and lows.

"The problem is the drugs' adverse side-effects - the depression that is caused when you are coming down (withdrawing) from steroid use," Garrett explained. "Once you build your body up with steroids, and then stop, you not only become really depressed. You also suffer extreme physical side effects. Kidneys are adversely affected, as is the liver."

While in that depressed state, adolescents begin using other substances to self-medicate, "which leads to a vicious cycle," Garrett said.

"You use one substance to get up and another substance to get down. Eventually it becomes out of control and kids become addicted."

Dr. Lewis B. Hancock, Dayspring program director, said Robitussin-DM, a popular over-the-counter cough syrup that causes numbness and drowsiness, has been used "to try to mellow a kid out after he has gotten into a hyper, maniacal, aggressive state with steroids.

"The two seem to go hand in hand," he said. "We've seen a significant increase in Robitussin-DM abusers. In fact, between 15-20 percent of the teenagers treated (at Wasatch Canyon's Dayspring) have abused Robitussin-DM."

Hancock said that within the past year, four youths shooting steroids have been treated at Dayspring. "Previously, we hadn't seen one case in the last 10 years."

The counselors believe that steroids are used to some degree in every high school in the state by both athletes and regular students "wanting to appear more attractive to the opposite sex."

"For those who are not athletes who abuse the drug, the motivating factor appears to be pure vanity. They want to look better with the least amount of work on their part," Hancock said.

One high school student, who wanted to remain unidentified, reported that half the players in a well-known successful athletic program in the Salt Lake area are abusing the drug.

According to the student, if you've got the bucks, steroids are readily accessible.

"The sources get the steroids, then double or triple the price and sell them to the rather gullible adolescents," Garrett said.

A 45-day supply, which pharmacists sell for $35 to $40, is supplied to students for $80, he said.

Many abusers "stack" - take both oral and injectable steroids. "It's rare that someone would inject himself. It's usually someone else injecting the steroids for him," the student said.

Hancock warns that illegally selling the body-building drug "may be contributing to the cycle of manic behavior followed by depression, which could ultimately cause the adolescent to become suicidal."

"Massive doses of steroids injected into young men are a loaded gun, Russian roulette," Hancock stressed. "We don't know what the long-term effects are on an adolescent's body or mind."

Garrett added, "But if it means that kids are out there hurting themselves due to steroid use, I want to get to the source. The way to stop the illegal use of steroids is to get to the source - and prosecute."

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Steroid bill awaits governor's pen

A bill prohibiting doctors from prescribing steroids for athletic purposes is awaiting the governor's signature.

The bill, which passed the Legislature five minutes before the 1989 session ended, makes the drugs a controlled substance, similar to codeine and Valium.

"The bill does not prohibit the use of steroids, but regulates doctors from prescribing them for athletic reasons only," said Sen. Richard J. Carling, R-Salt Lake, the bill's sponsor. Use of steroids for specific medical purposes will continue even if the bill is signed into law.

But even the law may not halt the abuse by teens, Dr. George J. Van Komen, chairman of the Utah Medical Association's controlled-substance committee, said 36percent of steroids used are prescribed by doctors, 9 percent comes from pharmacies without a prescription; 55 percent comes from black-market sources.