October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month and the Ohio County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition members have asked me to write this letter. In the field of prevention our goal is to reach all persons before drugs or alcohol become a problem in their lives or a burden on society. We try to reach those who don't use or abuse alcohol and drugs as well as those who do. Citizens who never even touch drugs or alcohol can make changes that could begin to lower the high levels of use in a community by actively supporting efforts.
We all have a voice in what happens in our environment. We can make policies that address advertising, employment, school behavior, business practices, legal issues and law enforcement. We can ask our lawmakers to support legislation that keeps our children safe. Those who do use drugs or alcohol can take an honest look at themselves and be open to understanding that their behavior affects young people. Changing adult substance use behavior and altering adult expectations of a child's alcohol or drug use can have a profound effect.
Those of us in the parent or grandparent generation often view drinking or smoking pot as a "rite of passage" as something "we all did." But the truth is our children are not using the drugs or alcohol we used. Marijuana has increasingly become more potent and the prescription drugs with opiates available now are more addictive than ever. The first time many of us drank we raided our parents' liquor and took that terrible first sip of straight liquor or a mixed concoction that would turn anyone off to drinking alcohol. We did not have lemonade or sweet cool-aid flavored drinks in pretty packages. The fact is our children are not doing what "we" did. Even folks who use substances "responsibly" may want to re-examine their actions and beliefs; realize the message we are sending to our children is that alcohol and some drugs are harmless. Change has to occur across the board and sometimes it means letting go of old habits and ways of thinking which is never easy.
Society often blames "other" people. Maybe they say it is the decline of family values, single-parent homes, low-income families and the list goes on. The fact is alcohol and drugs do not respect morality or socio-economic status. Research has shown that if a person uses alcohol prior to the age of 21, he or she is four times more likely to develop alcohol problems. The brain does not develop fully until age 24 in many adults. Studies show drinking affects school performance days after alcohol has left the system. Having alcohol in your home may not be harmful to you, if used in moderation, but it could be dangerous to your teen's development.
Why do we have a focus on underage drinking? Alcohol is still considered a gateway drug and regardless of it leading to other drug use, it still sets children up for problems. In this day and age, the gateway for many young people or children has changed to marijuana or prescription pain killers as their first experience with chemicals. Again, our children are not doing what past generations did and the problems continue to grow as a result. Adults can change their expectations of children. It doesn't have to be acceptable to do something just because "we all did it"
We all remember the public service announcements showing an egg frying with the line, "This is your brain on drugs." Though the effectiveness of that commercial was in question, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain and lives of those who use can be devastating. And even scarier still are the new "designer" drugs like bath salts, synthetic marijuana and what ever the newest derivative may be. Kids are spending an evening drinking or using drugs for "fun" and they don't wake up the next morning safe in their bed. They don't wake up! Prevention is not trying to stop addiction although the hope is it could; its aim is to improve and save lives by lowering the use of harmful substances and this may begin with substances many consider less harmful.
When we ask adults to change an age-old behavior that folks have accepted and believed since colonial times, it is met with denial, blame and stubborn pride. When we ask them to change they hear, "You are wrong" or "You are a bad parent." In most cases, we don't believe that! We believe circumstances are changing and instead of doing what we have always done, let's try a new open-minded approach. Let's stop the blame game and start working together to change ourselves.
Martha Polinsky, project coordinator, Ohio County Substance
Abuse Prevention Coalition