Purtzer: Strategies To Reduce Youth Substance Misuse

Aaron Purtzer
Los Alamos

Recently Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone presented a talk on the ongoing drug problem in Los Alamos public schools. Subsequently the Los Alamos Public Schools superintendent responded in an open letter discussing the schools role and processes for intervention and education.

The message I received from both Chief Sgambellone and Superintendent Gene Schmidt is that they are doing what they can to protect our youth from illicit drugs in the public schools but the community needs to participate in preventing substance abuse as well.
They are absolutely correct. The following is meant to provide some insight based on my experience working with law enforcement doing jail diversion on the steps we can take as a community to support our youth in making healthy choices in regards to controlled substances.
Historically, the reaction to drug misuse among youth and adults in the US has been to induct the offending individual into the criminal justice system either through incarceration or prolonged supervision by probation officers. What we are learning about the paradigm of the “Drug War” is it fails to address the broader issues driving controlled substance misuse. The central theme and underlying challenge confronting parents is the US is a drug-obsessed country therefore controlled substances, legal or illicit are everywhere.
The effect on children in Los Alamos is a confusing culture of “appropriate drugs” and illicit drugs. When children do not have access to illicit drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine, access to over-the-counter medications and alcohol is relatively easy. There is little arguing that alcohol is widely accessible and considered socially acceptable, particularly among young people. Kids are bombarded by the media glorifying drug use and drug selling in movies and music. Professional sporting events present a constant stream of beer and liquor ads. There simply is no refuge from the exposure kid’s experience from adults, peers and especially the plethora of media sources.
Many states are beginning to raise the white flag of surrender in the war on drugs and doing their own public policy “experimentation” in legalization and decriminalization. Policy changes, right or wrong only continue to confuse children with the hypocritical message that some drugs are acceptable while others are not. Here in Los Alamos, as parents we are limited in our ability to change the accessibility of drugs or the hypocritical message our culture purveys. By focusing on youth substance misuse as a public health and safety issue we are able to work cooperatively as a community toward prevention and early intervention.
First, as adults we need to model appropriate and healthy behaviors. Modelling appropriate and healthy behaviors means when we choose to consume alcohol we do it occasionally and only in moderation. We don’t binge drink simply because it’s a wedding or something stressful happened in our day-to-day life. By demonstrating healthy coping habits such as exercising, talking to someone we trust, meditation or prayer kids see there are healthy responses to stressful situations. The kids are watching and are far greater impacted by our actions then what we say.
Second, we need to secure the controlled substances in our homes. This means not only securing the pain killers and alcohol but over-the-counter medications that can be abused. Inform yourself about what types of over-the-counter medications are being abused by kids. Keep in mind that other common household items such as hand sanitizer, gasoline and computer keyboard cleaner can be abused. If you suspect your child is abusing drugs, almost anything could be a target for abuse. It is important to speak to grandparents so they know to secure their medications. A residual effect of this action will be your elderly relatives (and yourself) will be less likely to be burglarized by people who have heard there may be prescription drugs on hand.
Third, educate you children early and often about the dangers of substance abuse. Do not wait for the schools to catch-up. Have age appropriate conversations with your children as young as elementary aged kids and continue the talks through the young adult years. The large span of school years is a risky time simply because of the suggestibility children and young adults are open to. Being able to have a common-sense ongoing dialogue with your kids is great for prevention because you can better influence your children’s choices when it comes to friends and substance misuse.
Finally, we need to utilize our community programs Los Alamos has in place to support our children. Examples of programs that support Los Alamos youth are the various youth mentoring programs, The Y, JJAB and the Espanola/Los Alamos Teen Centers. Support your local youth programs through donations and by volunteering your time. Mentor a child, volunteer on a board, coach a sport, chaperone at a dance. Get involved in what is going on in the community and what your kids are involved in.
Getting involved demonstrates to the kids that you care and their choices matter. Being involved also validates children’s healthy decisions. It truly takes a village to protect our kids and being a smaller, tighter community allows us the luxury of being able to be the eyes and ears for everyone.
Using a public health and safety approach is cheaper and more effective than a robust criminal justice system. By warehousing kids in detention centers and forcing accountability to probation officers often times has negative results by making good and marginalized kids into criminals. The stigmatization, label and experience in the criminal justice system are shown to actually increase recidivism in many instances. While in the legal system, children often learn new techniques for beating the criminal justice system and learning how to access more and stronger controlled substances. Once law enforcement is involved it is very difficult to exit the system and even the simplest drug charges can haunt a person for decades once they have reformed.
Using the criminal justice systems as a treatment and/or intervention is very expensive, not effective and should be a last resort. Treating juvenile offenders is not what the legal system is designed to do and is largely an inappropriate modality. By implementing these simple suggestions we can take responsibility to help Los Alamos kids be healthier and safer.
Aaron Purtzer, MA is director of the Reach & Rise therapeutic youth mentoring program at The Family YMCA. His previous experience was as a crisis counselor in one of the nation’s few adult jail diversion programs. Purtzer worked closely with law enforcement at a Crisis Triage/Detox in Washington State to help find less costly and more effective alternatives to jails and hospitals in Yakima, Wash.

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