By Gretchen Althoff Snyder

Parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators all need to send the clear message that there are no good drugs for adolescents.

Nearly a year after the RyeACT Coalition held its first meeting amidst serious concerns over teen drug and alcohol use, things appear to be headed in a better direction. On May 9, the Coalition presented the results of the November 2016 survey, in which 90% of Rye students in grades 7-12 participated. The results show lower rates of past 30-day alcohol use across all grade levels than in the November 2014 survey. Significantly, 53.2% of 10th graders reported using alcohol in the 2014 survey, whereas only 35.5% reported past 30-day use. The numbers for 11th graders dropped from 75.7%% to 58%. And, with the exception of 12th grade, marijuana usage decreased across all grade levels.

Despite the lower numbers, alcohol use among Rye 10th and 12th graders is substantially higher than the national averages — respectively, 35.5% versus 19.9%, and 71.7% versus 33.2%. E-cigarette usage among Rye teens is also way above the national average.

RyeACT co-founder Julie Killian finds these results particularly unsettling, and believes the community needs to delve deeper into why our teenagers are using alcohol and drugs at rates that far exceed national levels.

The results for misuse of any type of prescription drug in the past 30 days were 2.9% of juniors and 5% of seniors. In addition, students across all grades perceive cigarettes and misuse of prescription drugs as high risk – at least 90% or higher in each grade.

In the most recent survey, over 95% of students in grades 7-12 felt their parents would disapprove if they misused prescription drugs. In contrast, fewer than 40% of 11th and 12th graders perceived any harm associated with marijuana use, and both grades reported a lower perception of parental disapproval — 84.7% for 12th graders in 2014, 77.3% in 2016.

After the survey results, the audience was privileged to listen to Dr. Robert DuPont, President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. Dr. DuPont’s prestigious career fighting drug and alcohol abuse spans almost 50 years: he was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the second White House Drug Czar under the Nixon and Ford administrations. He began by noting that “this community has been galvanized by the deaths of six young people” and that communities all over the country are working diligently to fight the effects of teen drug and alcohol use. The Center for Disease Control labels the situation a national emergency; in the last year, there were 52,000 deaths by overdose – more than deaths by auto accidents and gun violence combined.

Dr. DuPont was quick to point out that this does not reflect the failure of our children, but rather the “failure of adult stewardship”. He stressed, “The simple, clear prevention goal for youth is no use of alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drugs for reasons of health.” Parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators all need to send the clear message that there are no good drugs for adolescents. DuPont said that parents, while it may seem otherwise, have tremendous influence on their children’s behavior, including drug and alcohol use.

Focusing on the biology of the adolescent brain, he explained that the part of the brain that seeks reward and pleasure develops much earlier than the part of the brain that warns against risky or dangerous behavior. Alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and other drugs reward the brain with intense stimulation that exceeds reward from natural stimulation such as food and sex. As such, simply by virtue of their brain development stage, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to drug and alcohol use. And, he cautioned, “the earlier it starts, the more malignant the course.” Alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana are gateway drugs, thus, if teenagers any one of them, chances are extremely high that they will use others.

Despite the challenges, Dr. DuPont assured the audience that “prevention is indeed possible – it is not an empty goal” and provided statistics showing a national trend towards reduced drug and alcohol usage among teens.

Parental involvement is key, emphasized DuPont, noting that between 1978 and 1992, there was a 60% decrease in teen drug use, the direct result of a national focus on the issue where families led the campaign. He strongly urged parents to stay actively engaged with their children and continually send the message that no use of any drugs is vital for their physical and mental health.