Our Opinion: Community approach to substance abuse by North Berkshire youth

There was a time when prosecutors lamented that it was difficult, if not impossible, to convict a drunk driver. Jurors, many of whom had committed the same transgression for which the defendant stood in judgment, couldn't be convinced drunk driving was an actual crime worth imprisonment. Along came Mothers Against Drunk Driving, with a novel approach to the problem: Rather than stop the individual drunk from getting behind the wheel, change society to stigmatize the crime.

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, whose goal is to stave off for as long as possible a young person's experimentation with drugs and alcohol, is following a similar playbook. Rather than resurrecting former First Lady Nancy Reagan's largely ineffective "Just say no" campaign, the NBCC is taking a comprehensive, holistic approach by sensitizing the entire community and enlisting its support to provide young people the means to make responsible decisions on their own behalf.

Everyone knows that young people love to experiment, particularly with anything that is condemned by their elders. They also resist being commanded not to do something unless a justification is given that makes sense to them. Ultimately, they must be valued — not just within their families, but by every member of their community if they are not going to sink into the kind of despair and sense of worthlessness that might lead them to resort to substance abuse as a release. The NBCC initiative includes no lack of the conventional anti-drug prompts; through its nb21 (not before 21) program, it has produced the expected public service announcements and posters. These are important for keeping the topic front and center, but movie-theater and social media admonitions from authority figures like school officials, parents and police officers will probably have limited impact upon the average teenager.

More useful is the idea of encouraging families to develop a trusting, transparent, supportive environment conducive to asking questions and starting conversations about substance abuse. The NBCC has even developed programs to aid parents in addressing this daunting task, while the North Adams Police Department is poised to help parents any way it can.

According to the NBCC, data show that the earlier a young person experiments with substances like drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to abuse them and be dependent on them later in life. In that vein, a community environment that is light on the societal signals that might discourage such experimentation must change its own ways if its children are ever to resist their seductive appeal. These efforts when taken in total (which even involve a school curriculum that will teach life skills geared toward decision-making), have the advantage of promoting the very ties and mutual caring that lead to a stronger community in general. Over time the nb21 program, should it achieve some measure of success, could well have a cumulative effect in terms of redefining the way Northern Berkshire communities tackle persistent problems like youth drug and alcohol abuse.


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