by Diane Cornish….
Trying to paint an accurate picture of the extent of youth drug and alcohol abuse in any community is difficult, but two Waterdown area moms, working with others, are doing what they can to reduce its prevalence.
While still in its infancy, the Healthy Communities-Healthy Youth (HC-HY) initiative is a measure that is expected to pay dividends for youth, parents and the community. That’s why Penny Deathe of Waterdown and Judi Partridge of Carlisle have embraced it and that’s why they promote it every chance they get. They’ve got some strong allies – educators, clerics, public health officials, youth workers, police and area residents from all walks of life—all willing to admit there is a problem and ready to do something about it.
Sometimes the biggest step is acknowledging that a problem exists. “What I’ve found is that youth drug/alcohol abuse is like the elephant in the room; everyone knows it’s there but no one wants to talk about it,” Deathe said. “The problem is that if we don’t talk about it openly then we’re doing our kids a huge disservice by not dealing with it.”
So Deathe and Partridge, both moms with teenage sons attending Waterdown District High School (WDHS), collaborated with others to come up with a plan of action. It includes working with the Hamilton Drug & Alcohol Awareness Committee (HDAAC) to devise a long-term plan to educate and support parents as well as adoption of the HC-HY national program to help families, schools and organizations implement an asset framework for positive youth development.
Developmental assets represent the relationships, opportunities, and personal qualities that young people need to avoid risks and thrive. Among the building blocks for healthy development of youth, identified by the Search Institute (an American-based organization from which the HC-HY initiative grew) are 40 developmental assets for adolescents aged 12 to 18, including positive family communication, parent involvement in schooling, a community that values youth, positive peer influence, availability of youth programs, time devoted to homework, reading for pleasure, accepting personal responsibility, ability to resist negative peer pressure and having self-esteem and a sense of purpose in life.
It has been shown that increasing the number of developmental assets in a youth’s life has a powerful impact on preventing or delaying the youth’s use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
Also, the more assets that a youth enjoys, the less likely he or she will engage in violence or sexual activity.
The Flamborough initiative grew out of a meeting held in Waterdown last November. Attended by public health representatives, youth workers, educators, detox workers, police and parents, the meeting served as a sounding board for launching the initiative. In March, the pilot project was introduced to Waterdown Education (WE), a multi-school strategic advocacy group that has been working with the HDAAC to increase awareness about drug and alcohol abuse among local youth.
A community meeting focusing on the initiative is planned for June; organizers hope to formally launch the project in September.
Deathe and Partridge are concerned about the prevalence and lasting effects of youth drug and alcohol use and they know other parents are, too. They point to findings in a 2007 Hamilton Student Drug Use Survey that indicate that as many as 80 per cent of students aged 16 to 18 have drank alcohol and 45 to 49 per cent have smoked marijuana.
Deathe thinks the findings are significant and she’s disturbed by the trend toward a rising incidence of alcohol and drug use as students advance through high school. The 2009 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) shows that alcohol use by Ontario students rises from 51.6 per cent in Grade 9 to 82.9 per cent in Grade 12 and marijuana use from 18.4 per cent to 45.6 per cent.
Partridge said marijuana is much stronger now than it was 20 to 30 years ago. “It has 30 per cent higher THC in it now,” she said, noting that the drug’s effect on a student’s brain is irreversible.
WDHS principal Michelle Visca doesn’t dispute that some students are using drugs and alcohol. While not undermining the importance of the community initiative, she said usage of both substances by WDHS students is not outside the norm for Hamilton public high schools.
A “Tell Them From Me” survey conducted every few years by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) asks students about their experience with drugs and alcohol. According to Visca, the 2009 survey indicates that 20 to 25 per cent of WDHS students have smoked marijuana and 70 per cent answered in the affirmative when asked whether they had had their first alcoholic drink.
The survey doesn’t ask students if they drink regularly so “there are limitations to it,” Visca noted.
The same survey showed that 13 to 15 per cent of WDHS students had tried ecstasy, crystal meth or cocaine. “Whether it’s 20 to 25 per cent of students, that’s 20 to 25 per cent too many,” Visca said, adding that she supports any initiative to combat drug use. She would like to see all percentages of marijuana use lower because “a), it’s illegal and b), it can permanently affect students’ brains which is something they might not be aware of.”
Visca said the whole community, needs to band together to promote positive character building in every segment of society to promote positive youth development.
Partridge said parental involvement is key, however. “It’s not just up to the schools,” she said.
“There has to be a conscious effort by parents to talk about it (drug and alcohol use) with their children.”
Parents can open the lines of communication by regularly sitting down to enjoy a meal with their children. “Family dinner is a huge thing,” Deathe said.
Flamborough resident Tammy Francoeur, agrees that family support plays a major role in helping youth who are struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. “Work needs to start with families,” said the director of Turning Point Detox, a Hamilton-based detoxification and recovery program for men.
Francoeur, who has helped Waterdown area youth and adults overcome drug and alcohol addictions, said the whole issue has to be brought out of the shadows. She advocates a community-wide response and says people need “to make a statement” if they see something in their community that needs fixing. “You’ve got to be willing to rat on your neighbour,” she said. Residents also need to “make a statement” if they see something in their community that they think could encourage drug use. She cited crack pipes sold in a Waterdown convenience store as an example. “People have got to be prepared to do something,” she said.