Just say 'yes' to prevention

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GREAT BARRINGTON — For as long as she's been a health educator at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, Pat Boland says that while there are always a few parents here and there who opt their children out of sex ed, she said she's never had a family pull a student from a unit on drug and alcohol use and substance abuse.

In fact, it's a topic that's been expanded on over the years with the support of The Brien Center's Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Program, which partners with schools to offer on-site prevention education, school-based counseling, parent and community education programs.

Back in the fall, the program received a $25,000 boost to support staff through the Walmart Foundation, and was also awarded in 2016, a Josephine and Louise Crane Foundation grant for $100,000 to help fully fund prevention programs for the year.

Amanda Toomey is one of the substance abuse specialists who works for the program. She says the biggest challenges for young people are navigating the mixed messages they get about drug and alcohol use and how they use that information to make decisions which could have a lasting impact on their lives.

"Marijuana's a big one now because it's legal. So they have questions like, if my parents can do it or my older siblings can do it, why shouldn't I? We have to remind them that their brains are still developing until they're 25," Toomey said. "To the same effect, we have to explain that just because alcohol is legal doesn't mean that it's not bad for them and can have various consequences."

Toomey works with Boland to facilitate class projects on these issues, and together, they use a curriculum called "Project ALERT: Adolescent Learning Experiences Resistance Training." Designed specifically for seventh and eighth graders, the national curriculum focuses on teaching methods of resisting both external pressures, like peer pressure and media influence, as well as internal pressures, like the drive to feel high to combat depression or loneliness or boredom.

This year, Boland said students in grades 7 and 8 received a 30-day education program to dive into the research and projects, and exercises like role modeling, surveying, making posters and quiz games. In Grade 7, Project ALERT addresses issues with alcohol, tobacco and inhalants (any kind of household item or chemical that has high-inducing gases, from paint to markers to aerosol agents from whipped cream containers). In Grade 8, these subjects, along with issues of addiction, are addressed.

Seventh grader Haven Westcott said the program, "offers a better perspective for us. As teen in middle school, drugs are all around us. We need to know about this."

Asked if there are any topics the program should cover that it currently does not cover, Brady DeVergilio said that there should be more information available about opioid and other prescription drugs, noting that they're also widely used and available to people his age. "These are not talked about as much," he said.

Their class recently wrapped up their program with a round of "Drug Jeopardy," which tested their knowledge on things like state drinking and Good Samaritan laws, as well as the effects different substances could have on their bodies and minds.

Toomey, and program affiliate Michael Monti, who were in attendance, said that issues with youth and substances are dynamic, with different rates of use and trial changing from year to year.

Toomey said that, anecdotally, eighth-graders are using inhalants more, and Monti noted that cocaine has been reintroduced to the local drug pool in higher volume. Toomey also noted that prescription drugs like Xanax, a popular sedative used to treat anxiety and panic disorder, are also viewed by young people as a "safe" drug.

Currently the Brien Center serves over 4,000 children and youth each year, but the goal is to become more focused on prevention to help lower the number of youths developing issues with substances and receiving treatment. Toomey and other specialists like her, while visiting schools, can work with adjustment counselors and school nurses to create pathways for intervention and counseling. With parental permission, Toomey can meet with students one-on-one or in small groups.

"At the end of the day, I just hope the students become the educators for their peers," said Toomey.

Boland said that by just having a Brien Center staff member in the building makes students aware that their are programs to help them.

Originally founded by B. John and Rosaleen Miller of Pittsfield, the Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Program was created in memory of their son, Patrick, who died of an accidental overdose, after a long struggle with addiction.

Ultimately the Brien Center hopes to make its education and counseling programs available to any Berkshire County school by obtaining a steady stream of funding; currently the Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Program is independently funded.


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