Help keep teens from drugs and alcohol

Lighthouse column
By: By Angela Ponivas, M.S.W., Special to The News Messenger
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Recently, I heard a young girl, approximately 18-years-old, share her life story. Her story began with the fact that she started to use drugs at the age of 10 and her drug use rose to the level of using needles.

Fortunately, her story concluded with the fact that she is now sober.

As an adult, my younger brother shared with me that he started using drugs at the age of 12. I was shocked and saddened to learn that No. 1, he used drugs at such a young age and No. 2, no one in the family noticed or knew about it.

It is very sad to see children fall into the trap of using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism and this can have serious, often lifelong consequences for them, their families and their communities. Yet, the issue of drug and alcohol use among teens has only grown over time.

According to national statistics produced by Columbia University, the average age of first drug use is 12 years 2 months for alcohol; 12 ½ years for cigarettes and 13 years 11 months for marijuana.

More than 5 million 12-to-17 year olds (20 percent) can buy marijuana in an hour or less; another 5 million (19 percent) can buy marijuana within a day.

The proportion of teens who consider beer easier to buy than cigarettes or marijuana is up 80 percent from 2000 (18 percent versus 10 percent).

For the first time in history, teens are as concerned about social and academic pressures as they are about drugs. Teens at schools with more than 1,200 students are twice as likely as teens at schools with less than 800 students to be at high risk of substance abuse (25 percent versus 12 percent).

The leading causes of substance use among teens include:

High stress – High-stress teens are twice as likely as low-stress teens to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs.

Boredom - Bored teens are 50 percent likelier than not-often bored teens to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs.

Spending Money - Teens with $25 or more per week in spending money are nearly twice as likely as teens with less spending money to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs, and more than twice as likely to get drunk.

Teens exhibiting two or three of these characteristics are at more than three times the risk of substance abuse as those exhibiting none of these characteristics.

More than half the nation’s 12-to-17 year olds (52 percent) are at greater risk of substance abuse because of high stress, frequent boredom, too much spending money or some combination of these characteristics.

Five ways parents can reduce teen risk:

Be sensitive to the stress in your children’s lives and help them cope.

Understand when and why your children are bored and help relieve their boredom.

Limit the amount of money your children have to spend and monitor how that money is spent.

Know who your children’s friends are.

Be engaged in your children’s lives: help them with their homework, attend their sports events, participate in activities together and talk to them about drugs.

In the case of my younger brother, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer when he started using drugs. This was a huge stress for a child to manage. Unfortunately, the family’s attention was very focused on my mother and no one noticed what my little brother was going through. This had long-term consequences for my brother’s life and for my family, as a whole.

Children feel the effects of family crisis and it is important that we are sensitive to their stress and that we support, encourage and help them develop healthy coping skills.

If your family is dealing with a crisis or family stressor, there is help within the community and it can be found at the Lighthouse. For more information, call 645-3300.

Angela Ponivas, M.S.W., is the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center’s executive director. Her phone is 645-3300; address is 427 A St., Suite 400; and Web site is