By the numbers: Concord High shifts focus on drug and alcohol education

By ELLA NILSEN, Monitor Staff

Published Concord Monitor 5/08/2016

Anti-drug and alcohol presentations today don’t look like the ones shown to high school students 10 to 20 years ago.

Think less “Scared Straight” and more “frank conversations” between school counselors and students about the effects drugs and alcohol can have on developing brains.

“You’re at a much higher risk if you’re using younger,” said Erika Miller, a student  program counselor at Concord High School and Rundlett Middle School.

Researchers have found a distinct correlation between adult substance abuse and drug use at a young age. A 2011 study found that 90 percent of Americans addicted to alcohol, tobacco and drugs started using these substances before they turned 18.

As part of Miller’s job, she does group and individual counseling with students who may be using substances like marijuana and alcohol, as well ask kids who have experimented with harder drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.

Results from the 2015 statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey show alcohol and marijuana are by far the most prevalent substances used by local teens.

Almost 28 percent of Concord High students said they used alcohol at some point during the past month, 19.6 percent said they used marijuana and 10.6 percent said they had used prescription pills at some point in their lives.

The data showed that while rates of teen cigarette smoking have gone down, 19.3 percent said they had used an electronic vapor product in the past month.

Reported heroin and methamphetamine use was much more rare; 3 percent of students reported using meth and 2.5 percent said they had used heroin.

Miller said those statistics bear out what she hears in school.

“I definitely spend most of my time talking with students who are involved with alcohol and marijuana,” Miller said, adding that while heroin and hard drugs occasionally come up with some students, it’s uncommon.

With the state’s heroin and opioid crisis in full swing and hundreds of fatal overdoses a year, Miller said most students are fully aware of the dangers of those drugs.

“I tend to hear from kids that they definitely see harm it that,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh my God, I would never do that.’ ”

Especially with marijuana legalization being discussed on the state level, Miller often hears the “it’s just a plant” argument from students.

She often comes back with the point that “just because something’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Miller is also focused on educating parents and encouraging them to talk to their children about substance use.

“Parents can be one of the strongest, if not the strongest protective factor for kids,” she said. “Addiction is a disease and can happen to anyone. We just want to be sure parents understand the increased risk their kids are at if they permit early access to things like alcohol and marijuana.”

Miller’s work is part of a four-year, $8.6 million Safe Schools, Healthy Students federal grant that the Concord School District was awarded in 2013, in addition to the Rochester and Laconia districts. Of the total amount, Concord received $2.1 million.

Districts across the country were awarded these grants after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings to understand students’ behavioral health and connect schools and families to community resources.

“When folks think about mental health, there’s a stigma attached to it,” said Stacey Lazzar, the district’s grant program manager.

Concord High used to have a counselor focused on substance use, but the position was cut years ago. However, with New Hampshire in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic, “this grant allowed us to bring this service back,” Lazzar said.

Miller’s position is just one of the elements of the broad grant, which includes partnering with outside organizations such as Child and Family Services, Riverbend Community Mental Health and Community Bridges.

Lazzar said one of the goals of Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant is to continue to destigmatize mental health, especially because schools increasingly deal with students of all grade levels dealing with anxiety and trauma.

“Schools and mental health can co-exist. They don’t need to be separate,” Lazzar said.

The grant’s work is ongoing, so district officials don’t yet have data showing outcomes.

Miller says that though some of the students she speaks with can at first be hesitant to talk about substance use, they are usually willing to have the conversation.

“It’s almost like they’re taken aback by the fact they’re able to do that, but then they embrace it,” she said. “We end up having some really good discussions.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)