OLD TOWN, Maine — What does it take to drive down rates of drug and alcohol use in middle school students? That question was the focus of a half-day community breakfast and presentation Saturday, hosted by the nonprofit group Greater Old Town Communities That Care.
According to data provided at the meeting, rates of marijuana use and illicit drug selling among area eighth-graders have dropped significantly since 2002. But self-reported binge drinking in that young population has risen over the same period, from 13.5 percent of surveyed students in 2002 to 15.7 percent in 2008. Rates of both marijuana use and binge drinking remain well above the state average of 5.4 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, while the selling of illicit drugs has dropped below the state average, from 9 percent of surveyed eighth-graders in 2002 to just 1.5 percent in 2008. The state average for self-reported drug selling among eighth-graders in 2008 is 3.4 percent.
Communities That Care is a trademarked substance abuse prevention program developed by researchers at the University of Washington and subsequently purchased by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In 2007, Greater Old Town Communities That Care was incorporated as a nonprofit organization with a mission of driving down rates of teen alcohol and drug abuse.
Saturday’s meeting attracted about two dozen medical professionals, municipal leaders, law enforcement officials, educators and others from the community.
According to executive director Diane Vatne, Communities That Care has proved effective in other states when applied consistently across the public school system and within the general population. The approach includes one-on-one academic tutoring to boost student self-esteem and aspirations, the building of social skills, and broad-based education to counteract the pervasive advertising and marketing of alcohol. Students from Old Town, Alton, Bradley, Greenbush, Indian Island and Milford are served by the program.
But Chief Deputy Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department said at Saturday’s meeting that Communities That Care is not enough on its own to turn the tide of substance abuse in the Old Town area.
“It’s not just youth, but the whole community” that needs to change, he said. Parent-endorsed teen drinking parties in the area are symptomatic, he said.
“We need to change the community mind-set,” Morton said. For example, changing the way alcohol is displayed and marketed in local stores can be effective, he said.
The Rev. Robert Carlson, who serves on numerous nonprofit boards, said it has proved challenging to attract parents to community forums on teen substance abuse. A recent event in Hampden, organized in response to a marked increase in self-reported teen drinking rates in that community, attracted only two parents, he said. Organizations and public health groups must find ways to present information to parents in other venues, he said, such as sporting events, band concerts and fundraising dinners.
Linda McGee, executive director of the nonprofit River Coalition, which serves a similar mission to Communities That Care, said it is imperative for groups to collaborate in order to reach a broader audience.
For more information about Greater Old Town Communities That Care, contact Diane Vatne at 827-5812 or firstname.lastname@example.org.