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An Ounce of Prevention...

We at Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction (CCSA) know what it means to impact kids’ lives in a very real way. After a recent high school prevention education program, a student admitted he was using substances and wanted to stop, but said he didn’t care enough about himself to do so. Our presenter spoke to him directly and then brought it to the attention of the guidance counselor.

In another situation, we got a call from a guidance counselor who related that two eighth grade girls came to her office, worried about their friend. They said that she was hanging out with high school boys, drinking and using weed, and they wanted to make sure that an adult knew what was happening. They specifically said that they only felt comfortable saying this because the CCSA presenter said that it wasn’t “telling” on someone, but helping and potentially saving their life, and that you should speak up if you are concerned.

Our children are exposed to a wide variety of substances, both in popular culture and social media, and in interactions with their friends/family. With the recent legalization of marijuana in New Jersey, New York, and several other states, smoke shops are opening more frequently in our neighborhoods and are aggressively advertising their products. We know our children are internalizing what they see as evidenced by the questions that they submit anonymously during our presentations, such as: “If marijuana and alcohol are bad for you, why is it legal?” “Is it really that bad to drink or use weed once in a while?” “How do you draw the line between what is normal, which it (use of substances) is at this age, and what is a problem?” “What should I do if my friend pressures me to use the vape he found in his brother’s room?”

The rate of exposure and accessibility, particularly of alcohol, marijuana and vaping/nicotine, has risen dramatically while the perception of harm has declined.

The best way to counteract this tidal wave of exposure and accessibility, and the key to prevention education, is to start educating our children about substances as early as possible and then to reinforce this education through frequent discussions on the subject. When we teach our children to cross the street, we don’t start when they are older and we think they can manage it themselves. We start earlier, and we model our best behavior while doing so. We take them by the hand, show them the crosswalk and lights and we say, “Let’s be sure to look both ways while we cross.” We continue to teach them to safely cross the street until we are confident that they can do it themselves.

So, too, with CCSA’s prevention education. We have developed a 6th grade program that introduces information on various substances in a very factual manner, creating that initial dialogue. We have correlative presentations for each subsequent school year through 12th grade. By establishing this CCSA program as the entry point to a discussion on substance use and maintaining the “building block” approach with differentiated programs in 7th through 12th grades, we are best preparing our children to cope with the inevitable exposure to substances and potential decisions about their use as well as working to prevent future misuse. It is also crucial that we start educating our children as early as possible with the correct information about substances, before they become accustomed to seeing a glamorized vision of substance and alcohol use and are flooded with misinformation about all substances.

This past school year, 40 schools took an important step in protecting their students’ well-being by partnering with CCSA and including our evidence-based substance use prevention education program in their curriculum.

With grade differentiated programs — each one geared towards the developmental and cognitive level of specific ages — we educated over 4,600 students last year. Young Jewish people with firsthand experience with addiction present their personal stories and teach the facts, science, and data around substance use and addiction. Hearing personal stories from those with live experience profoundly affects our children and allows them a unique opportunity to ask our presenters questions about those experiences. Combining these personal narratives with understanding the dangers of substance use and risk of addiction has created an educational model of prevention that has an incredible impact on the students, providing lessons and information that resonate with them and stay with them long after the program is over.

In addition to our student programs, we meet with parents as well as faculty members to discuss current drug trends, how to recognize when a student/child is struggling with substance use or issues that might lead to use, and how to effectively communicate with their children and students about these topics. Parent workshops are included to enhance student programming and are an important part of the success of the program. These discussions are aimed to empower parents to have direct conversations with their children on this crucial issue, while student programs encourage kids to open up to their parents. By establishing this line of communication between parents and their children, we have created an atmosphere where children feel they can approach their parents to discuss this difficult subject — a primary goal of our prevention programming. A beneficial secondary result is that once parents and children can comfortably talk about substance use and its struggles, they would be more likely to have conversations about other difficult subjects that affect their lives and our community.

This past summer, CCSA spent a great deal of time updating and expanding its current programming. Much of our growth this past year has stemmed from our partner schools, who requested multiple programs and introduced more interactive presentations for their graduating students to address post-middle and high school concerns. Similarly for the coming academic year, we have already had conversations with our current school partners about multi-dimensional programs, with smaller discussion groups for “deep dives” into relevant topics, and programs for the younger grades. This demand for more prevention education for our children will be the basis for even more differentiated and expanded prevention programs in 2022-2023.

CCSA is all about empowering our children to make healthy decisions, understanding the risks of using substances, speaking up to help themselves and/or others, and encouraging dialogue between parents and their children on this difficult topic. Since our inception, CCSA has educated over 7,800 children and presented to almost 2,000 parents and educators...and we keep growing!

We welcome all schools, synagogues, and community organizations to reach out to us so they can partner with us for the upcoming school year. The lives, safety, and mental well-being of all our children depend on it.

So, whatever happened to that high school student we mentioned at the outset? Months later, when we returned to that school for a supplemental program, we were told that the boy is working with a therapist, he is speaking regularly to this guidance counselor, and the school and family are working together to get him the help he so desperately needed. This is the power of prevention education and the importance of CCSA working together with our middle and high school children.

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