Attempting to change the culture

Roberto M. Esquivel | Herald-Standard

A poster in the hallway of the student center of California University hopes to discourage prescription drug abuse by students..

The following article is part of a continuing series of articles examining the effects of illegal drugs in Fayette County.

Youth, drugs and pop culture nothing new, right?

The turbulent ’60s, the self indulgent ’70s, the decadent ’80s, the grunge-filled ’90s, were all wrought with the same problem — keeping children and young adults from emulating pop culture icons who appear to glamorize the use of drugs.

Today, children and teens are inundated with images like drag racing Justin Beiber and twerking Miley Cyrus, who both have admitted to illegal drug use. Stars like Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Kris Kross (Chris Kelly) have all succumbed to the drug demons they often battled publicly. But what impact do these images have on youth, and how do families combat the pervasiveness of drugs in pop culture?

“The impact of pop culture is huge. They did a TV show based on drug use called ‘Weeds,’” said Donna George, director of alcohol and other drug programs at California University of Pennsylvania. “The culture of Hollywood, a lot of it is about marijuana and alcohol, glorifying it but not showing the downside,”

Although shocking, recent celebrity overdose deaths of Philip Seymore Hoffman and Corey Monteith are no different than those of Marilyn Monroe and Janis Joplin that occurred decades ago. The list of celebrity deaths due to drugs and alcohol is lengthy, but it doesn’t seem to deter the way drug use in Hollywood is viewed.

“I think throughout recent history the problem is constant, the drugs of choice change and trends change, but the problem remains,” said George.

Counselors, educators and parents must remain ever vigilant as to what is “trending” in drug and alcohol use and dangerous or at-risk behavior, according to George.

Cal U’s comprehensive drug and alcohol prevention plan coordinated by George, includes many key components, like a peer education program called Options@Cal U; Cal Alcohol and Other Drug Coalition combines resources and knowledge in an effort to change culture of use; Red Watch Band, a movement to combat toxic and binge drinking; the Truth Fairy flyers, placed under the doors of sleeping students to separate drug and alcohol fact vs. fiction; and Project Sticker Shock, which places warning stickers about the penalties for furnishing alcohol to minors are placed on all multi-packs of beer, alco-pops and other alcohol products that might appeal to underage drinkers.

Parents should start emphasizing the dangers of drug and alcohol with their children while they are young and always be on the look out for teachable moments, according to George.

“Realize that all young people, because their brain is not fully developed, will make bad choices. Keeping in mind they should not have too much freedom or (too much) responsibility,” said George. “Mistakes are teachable moments. Don’t minimize the mistakes or under react.”

These days, more than ever, George explains, prescription drug use and abuse is on the rise as is binge drinking especially on college campuses. While heroin use has exploded in recent years and the movement to legalize marijuana has increased discussion and popularity, America’s youth finds drugs and alcohol everywhere.

The SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and the Student Assistance Programs (SAP) in most high schools are good sources of information and help, not only for students at risk but also as tools of prevention, according to George.

SAP programs at Laurel Highlands High School have a broad scope to address the needs of students who may be at risk, including counseling services to address mental health and social issues; social work services which are available to students and families to concentrate on social and behavioral concerns; a communities-in-schools teacher/coordinator to meet with students to attend to academic and social concerns; and drug and alcohol services which are utilized on an as-needed basis as well faculty in-service training on common drug and alcohol topics.

Guidance Counselor Andrea Barchetti leads the SAP team at LHHS where team members work one-on-one with students and assists them in utilizing all services to tackle any concerns.

The SAP team at LHHS also collaborates with the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission to implement an “Under 21” campaign to disseminate information to parents about social hosting laws, as well as offer Internet safety and other parent workshops.

The school district also participated in the commission’s Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) of middle and high school students that anonymously assessed student attitudes and knowledge concerning alcohol, tobacco, prescription and illegal drugs, violence and other problem behaviors.

Barchetti explains how the SAP team, commission and students utilized the PAYS data to create a billboard and posters with text messages about the attitudes of drug and alcohol use.

“The messages came straight from our students,” said Barchetti.

The district’s SAP team stays informed on the most current information to keep youth safe and encourage family involvement. An after school intervention program has been implemented to focus on helping students rebuild academic skills, pro social skills and keep students out of alternative placements outside the district.

“It is our intent that these programs will impact our students and therefore impact our community in a positive way,” said Barchetti.

George urges parents to keep the lines of communication open with their children.

“Do not assume that they are getting all the information they need in school or that you have said all there is to say,” George said.

Most teens and college students care about what their parents have to say, according to George. In addition, she recommends staying current on trends and updated information while being cautious about your child receiving misinformation from other teens or young adults.

“Be clear about your expectations of them, but do not be judgmental,” she said. “Be willing to listen and hear what they have to say.”

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