Springtime is notable for graduation, the banishment of winter coats, flowers finally in bloom (along with my allergies), and the May/June combo of Mother’s and Father’s Day. Maybe some of you can relate to my children’s reactions upon hearing about these two “holidays” for the first time: they demanded to know “why is there no Children’s Day?” Their outrage reminded me of asking my parents the identical question, only to hear the classic refrain, “Because every day is Children’s Day.”
As a mother, I now understand this answer in every cell of my body. When Elizabeth Stone writes, “Making the decision to have a child…is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” she is not exaggerating or indulging in poetic license; ceding the autonomy of my heart to my children is a price I would gladly pay a hundred times over to see them live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. Teaching them how to tie their shoelaces, making sure they know to brush their teeth for a full two minutes, taking the time to explain right from wrong, and helping them navigate the wealth of grey in-between — as parents, we take our job seriously to prepare our children to meet the chaos of the world with strength, clarity, and grace.
Yet, despite all we do, have done, and will do to educate and protect our kids, one area remains consistently and dangerously underfunded when it comes to parents’ social-emotional resources and investment: the prevention of substance use and the mitigation of substance abuse among our children.
The numbers don’t lie:
- accidental drug overdose is currently the leading cause of death in the United States for those under 50 years old.
- According to the Partnership to End Addiction, 90% of individuals with addictions began using substances in their teen years, and 74% of adults participating in a substance abuse treatment program started using alcohol or drugs before the age of 17 (SAMSA).
These statistics are horrifying, let alone set against the wealth of research suggesting that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until 25. Drugs and alcohol can alter this development, potentially affecting brain structure and function (drugabuse.gov). We haven’t done enough to protect our children from substance dependence and addiction, nor the severe and often fatal consequences of such behavior.
Just this week, I received a newsletter on Heart Disease Prevention. Pick up any health or wellness magazine, and you’re likely to find some mention of heart health and symptoms to which we should stay alert. Even the most cursory internet search pulls up hundreds of tips, tricks, and resources for recognizing and reversing the signs of an unhealthy heart. Yet as our nation faces its most fatal year in what is arguably an ever-escalating public health crisis, you’d be hard-pressed to find “How to Avoid Opioid Addiction” on the cover of any popular, glossy magazine or “Are You Becoming Addicted?? Take Our Quiz” next to the latest Keto waffle recipe on your favorite foodie blog. Far from promoting individual awareness and sharing strategies to avoid, mitigate or prevent addiction within the Health and Wellness space, we mostly avoid the subject. And the overdose death rate continues to rise.
In recognition of the importance of early detection and the efficacy of sober mentors, Youth Prevention Mentors (YPM) was founded to counteract the stark reality that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. Co-founder Maks Ezrin, Dr. Rami Kaminsky MD, YPM Partner Psychiatrist, and I have made our mission to help young pre-addicts avoid the destruction and devastation of substance use and addiction. Where substance use is rampant, so too is substance abuse. YPM interrupts this traditionally progressive trajectory with one-on-one mentoring, youth workshops, and integrative, clinically supported drug testing and education. We breathe life into exhausted parents struggling to create and hold boundaries around their children’s substance use abuse by offering support and guidance, “a village” to supplant shame and isolation.
Renowned psychiatrist and YPM partner Dr. Rami Kaminski speaks of “taking care of our future selves.” I might not feel like doing laundry today, but I know the Natasha of tomorrow wants clean clothes. Out of care for her, I pause Netflix and toss a load of workout clothes into the wash. YPM embodies this principle by empowering young people to consider and care for their future selves. We take antioxidants to prevent cancer. We exercise, wear sunblock, try to lower our stress, and eat healthy fats — and we make it a priority to teach our children how to care for themselves in these ways and more. We do all of this willingly and passionately because we will do anything to ensure the safety and well-being of our precious children.
However, when it comes to preventing substance use, we offer “just say no,” or use deterrence and punishment. If these methods worked, I wouldn’t be here, and you wouldn’t be reading this right now. It’s time for a new approach. It’s time to elevate organizations like Partnership to End Addiction, which emphasize prevention and mitigation, and Youth Prevention Mentors, whose powerful slogan is “Striking Addiction Before Addiction Strikes.” It’s time to turn the page and begin a new story, where, as Maks says, we “help steer young adults out of danger early, so we are not meeting them years later, deep in the abyss of addiction.”
If, as Emily Dickinson says, “Forever – is composed of Nows –’’, what can we do right now to create our “Forever”?
In Service and with Hope,
 Drug Policy Alliance; https://drugpolicy.org/
Katz, Josh. “Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever” The New York Times, JUNE 5, 2017, https://nyti.ms/2rI5lBB