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What’s killing my classmates

Posted Feb. 13, 2017, at 12:30 p.m.

Editor’s note: This piece comes from students, ages 15 to 18, in the journalism class at Granite State Arts Academy in Salem, New Hampshire, who read the BDN story “The life and fall of a young Maine man addicted to heroin” and were inspired to research addiction. The students at the charter school wrote it collaboratively, and it’s published under the name of their teacher.

In the year 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drugs public enemy No. 1. The enemy was not a physical army that we could crush but rather something that threatened to take control over one’s body: drugs.

The declaration changed America. Since 1971, the U.S. has spent more than a trillion dollars on a war that is still being waged today. People continue to die from overdoses at record rates. We have yet to roll out a good solution.

Since 1999 the number of overdose deaths from prescription opioids and heroin has quadrupled. Millions of people have become addicted to opioids through painkillers prescribed by a doctor.

Out of the 23.5 million Americans suffering from drug addiction, 2 million are adolescents, ranging from ages 12 to 17.

Drug abuse in schools across the country is becoming far more prevalent. Many students claim to be exceptionally stressed with the amount of work and rigor that is expected of them on a day-to-day basis.

It’s conceivable that many of these stressed students use drugs as a coping mechanism, or as a way to relax and ease anxiety.

Some students may abuse drugs to deal with family issues and decrease the pressure felt in the home. In many cases, students may stay out of their homes and avoid family to not be caught or disappoint loved ones.

If an addiction progresses far enough, it can become all consuming. When people reach this point before their early 20s, the chance of recovery is all the more difficult.

That’s because drugs are particularly harmful for young people, since the brain doesn’t fully finish developing until about age 25.

Yet about 86 percent of high school students know someone who smokes, drinks or does drugs during school hours. Those ages 12 to 20 consume 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States.

Roughly 68 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol, while 37.4 percent of high school seniors drank within the last month.

From the national level, down to the community level, this country has battled substance use for decades. Programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) have informed children and adolescents of the risks of drug use in schools across America. But it hasn’t proven effective.

The drug education programs and rehabilitation systems in our country are due for a complete overhaul. We need to reconsider our views of drug use and addiction, and the methods of teaching about them.

People start using drugs for different reasons, so the first step in helping them would be to try to eliminate the most prominent cause in their life, such as stress.

As for adolescent users, treatment often begins with them feeling secure. Giving them a safe space to talk about their problem with people they trust is extremely important in letting adolescents open up.

Talking to parents, teachers and counselors about eliminating the fear of consequences would also be a big step in helping young people feel comfortable talking openly and honestly about their drug use and other problems.

Establishing connections with trusted adults would help bring young people to a point where they could take the next step to getting themselves help, whether that’s seeing a drug counselor, a doctor or checking into a rehabilitation center.

In order for young people to feel safe talking to their parents, teachers or counselors about drug use, these adults must be properly informed and ready to respond in a helpful way. Parents especially need the most help being properly informed about adolescent drug use.

Schools or drug counselors could do more to make information accessible to parents. Parents could also consider seeing drug counselors without their children to learn how to talk to their kids, how to help them and what resources are available. Learning small but helpful tips such as how to eliminate emotions like anger, disappointment or extreme sadness when talking to their kids would be helpful.

Making adolescents feel comfortable and supported in their environment is essential for them to open up and help them rebuild their minds and bodies without the use of drugs.

School systems try to prevent students from using drugs. But as kids grow, drugs become more accessible, and life becomes incredibly stressful. Young people become more curious. It’s important to continue drug education into high school and even beyond. Rather than scaring kids into not doing drugs, as some programs do, it’s more helpful to bring in those who have overcome addiction to talk openly and honestly with young people.

But ultimately we need to change the way we think about and treat drug use. Instead of shunning people with addiction and blaming them for their downward spiral, we must make them feel safe, so they can be comfortable enough to take that first step to get help — because you can’t force anyone to change if they’re not ready.

What we can do is make sure we’re giving children of next generations the right tools to avoid the temptations of drugs, as it could very well be the difference between life and death.

Chris Michaud teaches journalism at the Granite State Arts Academy in Salem, New Hampshire.

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