Musings and Observations / Barry Halpin
Battling teen substance abuse
It goes without saying that children are important to all of us and we want to support and protect them from life's dangers as they pursue their hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, for many young people these days, substance abuse is destroying their dreams.
Adolescence is stressful, but today's young people have more demands and stresses placed upon them than in the past from parents and society. These stresses combined with their desire to fit in and be accepted, can be confusing and often overwhelming.
They're caught in a proverbial no-mans land, no longer a child but not yet an adult. This can lead to ongoing battles with parents, especially over their freedom or lack of it. Many teens not only seem to be at war with their parents but at war with themselves, struggling to figure out who they are, with temptation often lurking around the next corner.
The world today is less secure, and more confusing and violent place than the world in which their parents grew up. Is it any wonder why so many teens are pessimistic about the future?
Substance abuse professionals, parents, teachers and community leaders must join together to provide teens with the tools to surmount the ever-present risks and take control of their lives and make positive choices. It is crucial that young people become well informed and understand that in life there are no make-up exams.
Dr. Milton Terris, founder of the National Association for Public Health Policy and Society for Epidemiological Research wrote in an article titled "Elements of a National Health Program" that "the most rapid and dramatic improvements in the health of the public will result not from medical care but from prevention measures. This was true in the past when infectious diseases were the major focus of concern. It is just as true today when noninfectious diseases are the most important causes of illness, disability and death."
In the world of infectious diseases, putting handles on pumps to combat cholera and putting screens on windows to combat yellow fever were successful preventive measures based on knowledge about the particular diseases and how they were spread.
More recently, it has been proven that providing prenatal counseling to women who normally don't have access to mainstream health care makes for healthier babies, and that prevention programs and early intervention with problem youth have been successful in keeping them out of the criminal justice system.
Both of these preventive measures have encouraged the individuals involved to achieve their full human potential, and may have saved the health care and criminal justice system millions of dollars in the process.
I've worked in the substance abuse prevention field for more than 20 years. It would be irresponsible to say that any health care program that calls itself a prevention program will automatically bring results, but categorically, a well thought out prevention program that is aware of its target population can impact that population.
I realize that the cholera and yellow fever examples do not readily translate to the substance abuse prevention field. There are no structural solutions available that would be analogous to handles on pumps and screens on windows. But metaphorically, what we in the substance abuse prevention field try to do is pump in knowledge, help build assets and screen out risk factors.
We live in an information age, where people constantly vie for our attention, and our children's attention, trying to get us to buy or believe in things they have to sell. More than ever before, knowledge is power. If that knowledge is used in the proper fashion it can empower others to make a better life for themselves.
Liberation Programs, one of the leading substance abuse health care agencies in lower Fairfield County, providing both substance abuse counseling and treatment as well as education and prevention services, believes in taking an active role in stopping the causes of addiction and substance abuse before they occur. Our prevention philosophy is to promote the growth of our youth toward their full human potential through education and skill development, to enable and empower them to choose positive and healthy lifestyles. We understand that the medium is the message and how essential it is to present the prevention message in a way that people will listen to and hear.
Our extensive and comprehensive prevention program includes the following components:
"¢ Presentations: A representative from Liberation Programs -- professional staff members as well as clients currently in our program and graduates -- custom tailor a presentation to meet the specific needs of the audience. Presentations are made available to middle and high school students, parent and community groups, civic and church groups, and local businesses and corporations. Topics range from substance abuse prevention to dealing with and managing your stress, the dangers of binge drinking to misuse of prescription drugs and how drug abuse touches the lives of all of us whether we realize it or not. For more information go to www.liberationprograms.org and click on "Can We Talk" Speakers Bureau.
"¢ Creative arts -- improvisational theater and writing: The creative arts are the perfect vehicle to teach life skills -- self awareness/empathy, communication/interpersonal relationships, decision making/problem solving, creative thinking/critical thinking, coping with stress -- that are designed to facilitate positive behaviors -- assets -- that will enable the students to deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life and reduce the likelihood the they will use alcohol and drugs.
The creative arts curriculum helps build resiliency, enhances communication skills and promotes better understanding of the choices the students will face in their personal lives; it engages and shows young people how to create positive and powerful solutions to issues impacting their lives.
"¢ Peer Players: An adolescent improvisational theater company that performs dramatic sketches on underage drinking, substance abuse, bullying, diversity, the Internet and social networking, teen relationships and parent-child relationships as well as comedy sketches and improvisational theater games. It's kids helping kids through the medium of theater in a way that's straightforward and honest, entertaining and engaging; they're carrying positive messages to their peers, using their voices for positive change.
"¢ Reality Checks: Groups of high school students visit one of Liberation Programs' residential treatment programs -- Families in Reovery Program (FIRP) for single mothers and their children and Liberation House for men -- and get a no-holds-barred look at drug treatment and the ravages of addiction. The students get to see a conflict resolution group, interact with the residents in role plays/psychodramas and have a Q&A session.
They hear directly from Lib House and FIRP residents, who have "been there." The residents talk openly and honestly about the struggles they go through in an effort to change the course of their lives. Their testimonials are by far the most powerful component of the program; the cautionary tales about lost aspirations and dreams and how substance abuse is an equal opportunity destroyer always resonate around the room with knowing glances and nods. The visit puts a human face on addiction, as they hear from people old enough to be their parents and young enough to be their classmates.
"¢ Peer-To-Peer Support Group: The Peer-To-Peer Support Group's mantra is: "Harnessing the power of peer influence to effect positive change." I have co-facilitated a group for the past two years and have witnessed countless success stories, testament to the power of peers helping peers. The students look forward to the group; it's a chance to express themselves in a place where no one is going to judge them. They're with people who care and understand what they're going through. Getting encouragement from kids their own age is vital. The group helps the students move forward. It's important to strike a balance between the social and the academic; if you neglect emotional and social health, you aren't positioning students to be successful in the years ahead.
"¢ Fathers' Forum: An education and support group that provides fathers with an opportunity to learn and share their concerns about challenging parenting issues. I bring in high school students to do role plays/psychodramas with the dads to help them understand how to improve communication with their child. The teens share their thoughts and ideas on what works and what doesn't and help the fathers understand their child's perspective and the reality of teen life today.
There's an African proverb that says "it takes a village to raise a child." Many of our children are in crisis and it's up to us to come together. All it takes is "an ounce of prevention" to get our "pound of cure." I think we can afford to give our children at least that.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.