Experts weigh in on the dangers of teen addiction, substance abuse


Photo Gallery | Community Discussion on Preventing Youth Substance Abuse

WILLIAMSTOWN — Four people die every day in Massachusetts from overdosing on opioids.

That grim reality, shared by Wendy Penner, director of prevention programs for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, set the backdrop on Wednesday evening as a panel of local experts gave a presentation on the dangers of addiction and substance abuse.

Studies have shown that the younger a person is when they first drink alcohol, the higher the chances that they will abuse other substances and become addicted, Penner said.

"Many of them don't even perceive that using these substances is harmful," she said. "So the later they start, the better off they are."

Nearly 100 parents and teens took part in the forum, hosted by the Mount Greylock Regional School PTO and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. The event featured remarks by from Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of the Brien Center; Dr. Thomas Hyde, retired pediatrician; Lanesborough Police Chief Tim Sorrell; Jacob Schutz, vice principal at Mount Greylock; and Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless.

According to Michaels, the brains of adolescents are still developing through their teen years. Full development doesn't come until they are 24 to 25 years old, she said, and the use of narcotics during those years can inhibit that development.

"Brains are like trees," she said. "In the right circumstances, you can grow a beautiful brain. But prolonged drug use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways."

She noted that alcohol impairs memory function, and that marijuana use can lead to depression and anxiety.

Dr. Thomas Hyde explained that opioid addiction is a severe epidemic due in large part to abuse of prescription drugs.

"About 2,000 teenagers try prescription drugs to get high every day," he said.

Parents are the first line of defense in preventing abuse of prescription drugs by teens, Hyde said. By discussing these issues with their children, and by locking up medications and disposing of unused prescriptions, the opportunity for abuse is diminished, as most prescription opioids are obtained by teens through stealing them from their parents or getting them from friends who stole them from their parents.

"Signs and symptoms of substance abuse include a change in behavior and a big change in who their friends are," Hyde said.

Schutz noted that no student or school is immune to the issues of substance abuse, and at Mount Greylock, a holistic approach is used, including positive reinforcement and praise, along with disciplinary methods.

"We want to teach our students to be resilient and to be able to bounce back from difficult times," he said.

Factors in a teen's life that could contribute to substance abuse include a lack of after-school activities, a lack of information on the topic, a lack of positive role models, and high anxiety or stress, Schutz said.

Chief Sorrell noted that there are no social boundaries to addiction, that people from all levels of society are susceptible to it.

"About 99 percent of shoplifters at the mall are addicts trying to get another fix," he said. Investigating crimes committed by addicts "is the biggest part of our job right now. As young people, you should be worried. Because once you become addicted, your life will never be normal again."

He assured the audience that if someone has a problem, they can approach a police officer and talk about it with them.

"We'll do what we can to help you," Sorrell said.

Capeless concentrated on the dangers of alcohol abuse by teens.

He noted that every weekend, a teenager dies in a car accident every hour, and alcohol is a factor in 50 percent of those crashes.

"In Berkshire County, alcohol and marijuana use among teens is significantly higher than national numbers," he said.

He also noted that parents who host parties and serve alcohol to teens sends the wrong message. It is also irresponsible and illegal, and conviction carries with it fines and potential prison terms.

"So by hosting such a party, your family's future could be jeopardized," Capeless said.

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-281-4622.


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