Last year at the SMS health fair, I had a drug and alcohol facts Q&A board; the students had to answer a question to get a free bag. Since kids like free stuff, I had a lot of them come over to answer a question. One of the questions was: True or False- Most teens use drugs or alcohol. I got mixed results on that one, but the answer is false. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) 2014 survey of drug use and attitudes among American 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, “Use of any illicit drug has generally declined over the past two decades. Past-year use of illicit drugs for all grades combined was 27.2 percent in 2014, down from its peak at 34.1 percent in 1997. “ So, the good news is that there are plenty of kids making good choices about not using drugs or alcohol. The bad news is that many young people continue to take risks with their health, their lives, and their future by using and abusing drugs and alcohol. This is why prevention work is so important.
There is no question that, over the past few decades, disease prevention efforts, such as screenings and education, have saved money and saved lives. But the sad fact is that in most areas of medicine, prevention efforts are way ahead of substance abuse prevention. This is true even though NIDA reports that the public health costs associated with substance abuse exceed the costs for both cancer and diabetes. “Multiple studies confirm the detrimental effect of substance abuse on overall physical and mental health, research has also shown that preventing addiction to drugs and alcohol is equally as critical to good health as common clinical prevention services, such as immunizations, cancer screenings, and treatment for hypertension”(Community Health Initiative). There’s general agreement in the scientific community that addiction is a disease, but prevention work in addiction is hampered by stigma. The idea that addiction is a moral failing is one that is hard, but necessary, to overcome. David Sheff, author of Clean : Overcoming Addiction and ending America’s greatest tragedy, says, “It’s impossible to overstate the potential benefits of disease prevention when it comes to hypertension, diabetes, cancer and heart problems, and it’s especially true for addiction…the onset of the disease of addiction is so early, it can devastate a person’s entire life.”
So, prevention in the area of drug and alcohol addiction does have some catching up to do. But there is a lot of great prevention work happening in communities all across the country, and especially here in New Milford. It’s happening in many areas: within families working to raise their children in loving, safe supportive ways; within schools working to create safe and supportive learning environments; within churches and other community organizations helping children grow in a positive supportive community. In CT there is also a network of organized “prevention councils” under the guidance of the regional prevention council, HVCASA in Bethel. The local prevention council is the New Milford Substance Abuse Prevention Council, comprised of representatives of community agencies and organizations, as well as concerned community members.
Substance abuse prevention is not easy but it is also not just guesswork. There is a growing amount of science guiding us. One thing we do know is that teens and young adults, with their brains still developing, are at very high risk for substance abuse and addiction; 9 out of 10 people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol as adults started using before they were 18.
How can we reduce that risk, and increase the chances of teens’ getting to adulthood alive and well? One thing that research in this area consistently shows, is that parents continue to matter greatly all through the teen years. It is true that it can be hard for a parent to stay connected when their teen is pushing them away. But all of the science tell us that the work to stay connected is worth it. A NIDA report, Preventing Drug Abuse Among Children and Adolescents, found the following factors to protect teens against substance abuse and addiction: “a strong bond between children and their families; a parental involvement in a child’s life; supportive parenting; and clear consistent limit setting.”
The New Milford Prevention Council believes that families and communities are the key in substance abuse prevention. We know that families matter, and that families that talk early and often about drugs and alcohol, and about everything, have better outcomes and have kids who are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Also, if and when teens in these families do engage in risky behaviors, they are more likely to go to their parents for help. Michael Pantalon, founder of the Center for Progressive recovery at Yale, points out the importance of open, exploratory conversations with teens, “If a child admits he’s using drugs, parents tend to become afraid, judgmental, angry, or punishing. If they do, the conversation is over. Parents should remember that the answers to the questions are not as important as the the fact that parents and kids are are communicating and creating trust and staying connected.”
In the spirit of communication, the Prevention Council is helping to bring Chris Herren to NMHS to speak about his addiction and recovery. We hope that parents and young people will hear Chris Herren’s message- of the bleakness of addiction, the hope of recovery, and finding a life worth living without drugs or alcohol. If your child is in high school and they hear Chris Herren during the day, go at night, so that you can have the conversation with them about it. We also encourage 6th grade students and older to attend WITH parents. It could be a great starting point, and once the conversation is started, your teen will know that it’s OK to come to you to talk about this stuff. Maybe it can be the dinner conversation the next day and maybe the next week.
The Chris Herren 7:00 evening program on Tuesday May 19th is open to the public. We know that it is not a panacea to have one person come and speak about this topic- even though he has a powerful story, even though he is an engaging speaker. What we hope to do with this Chris Herren presentation is to start a conversation, within families and within our community.
We are following this event up with a community forum on June 8th intended to continue the discussion and better inform the community about the problems of substance use and addiction. We hope you can make it to these events, and if you have any questions about these events, contact me or Stacey here at the NMYA. email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org