Nearly 200 parents, students, community members and area educators joined together Tuesday at the Horsham Township Community Center and demonstrated their willingness to "Be a Part of the Conversation" that the Hatboro-Horsham School District has initiated about drug and alcohol use and abuse.
The first of three planned "Be a Part of the Conversation" events for this school year was aimed at getting students, parents and employees talking about substance abuse. The initiative got underway last spring.
Steve Glaize, Hallowell Elementary School principal, served as the evening's moderator and began by reading excerpts from a newspaper article printed in 1971 about Hallowell Elementary School holding a similar event where parents met with local law enforcement and school officials to discuss the rising prevalence of marijuana use among young people. The article discussed the need for communication between parents and children about drug use and emphasized the need for a community center where young people could gather.
"Do you notice anything that reminds us of today?" Mr. Glaize asked the crowd. "Tonight, let's make our words translate into action. All of you here made a commitment to this issue. What will the newspaper articles say about us? Tonight, we get it started."
Before moving ahead with initiatives to curb student substance abuse, it is important for those involved to understand the reasons why people start using and abusing drugs and what can happen to the brain as a result. To that end, the district invited Dr. Ken Thompson, medical director for the Caron Treatment Center (a nonprofit provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment headquartered in Wernersville), to help explain some of the science behind addiction.
When a person uses a mood-altering drug, the drug can affect the limbic section of the brain. This section of the brain dictates all of a body's "survival" functions, such as hunger, emotions and procreation, he said. It is the more instinctual portion of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that helps a person to keep the urges of the limbic portion of the brain in check. In an addict, the prefrontal cortex is impaired, said Thompson.
"In an addicted person, the prefrontal cortex has lost its ability to say 'no,'" he said. "The brain has become hijacked."
While brain changes are significant to someone becoming an addict, genetics and the environment can also play a role, he said. Thompson cited statistics that have shown children are three to four times more likely to become alcoholics if they have a parent who is an alcoholic. Other statistics have shown that children who are exposed earlier to drug use are at higher risk for becoming addicts. He added that while a significant percentage of addicts also have mental illnesses like depression, these illnesses are not the sole cause for the addiction.
People abuse substances because they like them, he said. They like the way the drug makes them feel - whether it's increased energy, relaxation or a general sense of well-being - there is some positive benefit to the person using the drug.
"I have polled thousands of people and I have yet to have someone say, 'I like to puke and pass out and get arrested.' The driving force is people like what (drugs) do to them," Thompson said. "There's something they are getting out of it."
Knowing that is key to the treatment and recovery process, he said. Often times, treatment centers around making a person's life more positive by improving personal relationships, enhancing health routines and strengthening spiritual ties. But he said that doesn't change the simple fact that the patient still likes drugs. The addict's brain must be "re-patterned" so that destructive cycles are broken. In other words, he said if an addict experiences a craving, an alternative solution must be available to them, such as talking to a sponsor, praying, or using relaxation techniques.
Following Thompson's presentation, participants broke into smaller groups and discussed drug and alcohol issues in the community. Following these small group talks, facilitators reported back on some of their observations and findings. Among the suggestions brought forth were:
- Changing the culture so that parents become more responsible and more active in their children's lives
- Being more realistic about goals set for children and refocusing attention on health and well-being rather than school or career accomplishments
- Inviting students who are recovering addicts to speak with their peers about what they have been through
- Educating parents and others about drugs that young people are using
- Providing more activities and opportunities for students and organizing a mentoring program where high school seniors could act as "big brothers or big sisters" to freshmen
- Stopping the permissive attitude toward under-age drinking parties that parents allow in their homes to discourage teens from drinking and driving
- Creating literature for parents so they know how to talk with children of any age about substance abuse
Following the thoughts shared by small groups, Glaize concluded by telling participants that their suggestions will be taken to heart by "Be a Part of the Conversation" task force members and used to drive future events and programs related to drug and alcohol abuse prevention and awareness.
"We plan to take your words and your passion and start putting them into action," he said.
Parents were also encouraged to continue the conversation by attending Parent Partnership meetings, which are held at 7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month at the Horsham Township Library, 435 Babylon Road.
The next "Be a Part of the Conversation" event is planned for the evening of Dec. 6. Those who are interested in learning more can stay abreast of updates by clicking here www.hatboro-horsham.org/conversation or by following the "Be a Part of the Conversation" blog that appears on Hatboro-Horsham Patch.