Cape Girardeau's Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition helps kids understand dangers of drugs, alcohol

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

As a college instructor, I know the tell-tale signs of substance abuse in my students. Sure, there's the blood-shot eyes of the guy who smoked a joint before class or the sleepy gal in sunglasses nursing a hangover. But the No. 1 sign of an abuser is an empty seat in my classroom. They just don't show up. My husband, as a high school teacher, sees it, too. The rising absences and plummeting grades serve as testimony to the roller coaster these kids are on in every aspect of their lives. How can they get off this crazy thing? How did they get on in the first place? And, how can we prevent our own children from lining up for a turn? The Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition is here to help.

Formed in 2000 as the result of a community needs assessment conducted by the United Way of Southeast Missouri, the coalition has grown over the years. Community members from various sectors continue to come together to address the problem of youth substance abuse through evidence-based school programs, youth and adult training and the "I Rise Above" campaign.

Much like success in school, success in youth substance abuse prevention is dependent upon showing up. Project coordinator Shelly Wood and project director Mercedes Fort stress that not just parents, but all adults can have a positive influence on the lives of young people in our community. "The efforts of everyone in the community are needed as we move forward to continue addressing this problem."

The coalition meets on the third Tuesday every other month and all are welcome to attend.

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Flourish: Fourteen is the average age of onset of alcohol consumption in Cape County. How are these junior-high aged kids getting access to alcohol?

Wood and Fort: Our coalition was interested in finding out how kids access alcohol and other drugs, so in 2010, we developed and completed the Youth Access Survey. When we asked kids about access points for alcohol, the majority (23 percent) reported that they were getting alcohol from their peers. Disturbingly, many of the youth who took our survey reported that they were obtaining alcohol from an adult in their life. For instance, 15 percent said they had gotten alcohol from a family member and 16 percent said they had obtained alcohol from an adult who was not a family member. Kids may be accessing alcohol from parents without their parents even being aware of it. If adults keep alcohol in their house, it's critical that they safeguard and monitor that alcohol to make sure youth don't have access to it.

Unfortunately, in some cases, adults may be actively providing alcohol to youth. Since alcohol is legal, some adults may have the perception it's not as harmful as other drugs. This just isn't the case. Research tells us that the younger a person is when they begin drinking; the more likely they are to become alcohol dependent later in life. Additionally, alcohol can cause irreversible harm to the still-developing adolescent brain.

Flourish: What other substances are kids using? How are they getting access to those?

Wood and Fort: In addition to alcohol, data from our Youth Access Survey indicated that tobacco and marijuana were the substances of choice among area youth, and that peers were the primary points of access for these substances. Additionally, many youth reported that adults were often an access point for tobacco. National and local data also suggest that non-medical use of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs including cough syrups is a growing problem among youth. Similar to alcohol, these substances are often available to youth in their own homes or in the homes of friends and family members. Some youth choose to use medications that aren't prescribed to them to increase athletic or academic performance, and other youth report using prescription and OTC medications to "feel high." While medications can be beneficial when used appropriately, they are extremely dangerous when youth misuse them. It's important to keep your prescriptions in a safe place and to dispose of unwanted and unused medications in an appropriate manner. If you have medications that have expired or that you no longer need, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been providing safe opportunities for disposal by scheduling National Prescription Drug Take Back Days. We will have information for the next local Drug Take Back Day on our website, mychildourfuture.org, and Facebook as soon as it is available.

Flourish: Seventy percent of children say that their parents are the leading influence on whether or not they drink. Teens who learn about alcohol from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to consume it. What are the most effective ways for parents to educate their kids about alcohol and be positive influences? Should parents let their children see them drinking responsibly? Is there a way to make that a teachable moment?

Wood and Fort: Parents are often the greatest influence on their children's lives. It's important that parents begin talking to their children early and often about alcohol. Parents should talk to their children about the reasons it's important not to drink as an adolescent, and they should also be clear and consistent about their rules related to underage drinking. Communicating openly about alcohol can have a great impact on the behavior of youth. Parents should also keep in mind that their actions often have a greater influence on their children than their words. Therefore, it is critical that parents model responsible behavior related to alcohol. Parents who do drink should make sure to drink responsibly and they should also explain to their children the reasons why it is important for youth to wait until they are 21 to drink.

Flourish: How successful has the "I Rise Above" campaign been locally? How can more kids become involved in it?

Wood and Fort: We are really pleased with the current success of the Rise Above campaign. We've filmed two Rise Above commercials involving over 25 local youth. We've developed a youth Facebook page where kids can upload their own videos about how they rise above the pressures to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Many local youth are beginning to recognize the logo and the slogan. We are excited to see how this campaign evolves as more local youth continue to get involved. Youth who are interested in getting involved can check out our Rise Above Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WeRiseAbove.

As we work to reduce youth substance abuse, the more youth input we have, the more successful we will be. We have a youth committee that is currently working to plan a drug and alcohol-free community event for both youth and adults. We'd love to have more youth involved with that committee and the work of the coalition in general. To get involved, kids can check out the Rise Above Facebook page, email capepreventioncoalition@gmail.com or call 573-587-1921 and ask for Shelly.

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