LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's a sort of choose-your-own-adventure book for middle school students, only higher tech and with much higher stakes.
Community activists in eastern Kentucky are fighting prescription drug abuse by enlisting the help of a company that creates computerized dramas that let participants choose the path an actor takes with a click of the mouse.
WILL Interactive, based in Potomac, Md., is filming the project on prescription overdose in Kentucky with most cast members from Appalachia.
"In these kinds of behaviors it is not adequate to give someone information," WILL Interactive president Sharon Sloane said. "You really have to engage people emotionally -- simulate the stresses, the pressures, the pushes and pulls of the environment in which they interact."
With pain medication easier to get and far more socially acceptable than illicit narcotics, eastern Kentucky has battled a scourge of prescription drug abuse.
The problem hits hardest among people in their 20s and 30s, so community activists decided to target sixth- through ninth-graders, hoping to save the next generation.
The project, which will be shown on school computer screens and could develop a national audience if other districts sign on, is more than just asking students to say no to drugs. It gives them subtle options -- some of which lead to addiction, others to success.
One bad choice isn't fatal, but be careful: Pick too many ill-advised choices early and the most favorable routes might be unavailable later in the game.
Jim McDannel, an associate professor of psychology at Southeast Kentucky Community College, says even college-educated students are succumbing to prescription drugs.
"We've lost a whole generation is what it amounts to," McDannel said. "The last few years, I've seen some of my better students get hooked on drugs. It's a very frustrating process. You see just brilliant minds go to waste."
Kentucky River Community Care, a not-for-profit health center serving eight southeastern Kentucky counties, determined it may be too late to help most adult abusers, but it's not too late to help their children. In hiring WILL Interactive, the organization set a modest but critical goal -- push back, even by a couple years, the average age students start experimenting with prescription drugs.
"Instead of the kids starting to experiment at 13, if we can delay it a few years, the research indicates the kids have a much greater likelihood of not becoming abusers," said David Matthews, health center's director of adult services.
Other programs are starting to make at least a small dent in the problem. In 2003, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers got several million dollars for Operation UNITE, which increases drug investigations, treatment and education efforts in his eastern Kentucky district. Local churches have started a court-watch program to make sure drug dealers are more likely to be convicted.
Madeline Flanner-Kincer, chairwoman of UNITE's Letcher County Community Coalition, says she knows many families in the area with a loved one addicted to prescription drugs. One of her own relatives faced 17 years in prison for trafficking but is now in drug court, a type of diversion program.
"People get frustrated or into a mindset of hopelessness," she said. "The irony is now there are lots of jobs, lots of employers in the region who can't find employees who can pass drug tests."
Paul Cooney, a family practice physician in Barbourville, Ky., said he has stopped prescribing pain medication for chronic problems because he would see numerous potential drug abusers each day.
"As a physician, you get pretty adept at who really has pain and who just wants pain medicine," Cooney said.
Although producers of the interactive drama are quiet about most of the script, would-be actors tried out for a part earlier this month by reading lines in which a student tries to persuade a doctor to give him drugs.
By the time someone reaches the scrounging point, addiction has set in and it's likely too late, says director Jeff Hall. The more appealing routes, as the 60-minute video teaches, come earlier, like choosing where to hang out on the weekends, and more importantly, with whom.
"Sometimes the choices change the character," Hall said. "You might be a little more sensation-seeking, or you might be a little more responsible."
On the Net:
WILL Interactive: http://www.willinteractive.com