David DesRoches has been traveling the state talking with students about how schools are handling the rise in prescription drug use among Connecticut teenagers.
I spoke with him about what he's learned so far.
David DesRoches: Well, the situation in Connecticut is really different depending on where you are. Schools along the I-95 corridor tend to experience a bit more problems with heroin and prescription drug abuse, in fact a statewide survey recently found that while heroin use among teenagers has actually declined a little, prescription drug use is on the rise. But in some places along the I-95 corridor, heroin use is also on the rise.
And is it higher along I-95 because it’s a pass-through up to northern New England?
Well certainly, because that’s known for being a drug-trafficking corridor, and it’s just simply easier for drug traffickers to sell their product closer to the interstate.
So who did you talk to?
I did talk to a lot of students, as you can imagine, it's a pretty sensitive topic, so most of them were hesitant to share their stories, but one young lady I talked to told me she wanted to tell her story because she just wanted to help others. Her name is Angie, she's a senior in high school. She grew up surrounded by drugs, but she somehow actually managed to escape addiction herself. She told me her father being deported for selling drugs, and her mom's boyfriend was a heroin addict.
"My mom would sometimes find like empty bags in the house, or cut up Dunkin' Donuts straws," Angie said. "He would stay up all nights, all times... it's a matter of protecting myself. I don't want to be around dangerous things, especially now. Scary."
How old is she and is she still living with her mother?
She’s 17, and she actually moved out, I think, earlier this year. She’s now living with her friend’s parents. I reached out to her mom to talk to her about this, but haven't heard anything back. What really struck me about Angie is that she really loves her mom and she doesn't blame her or her mom's boyfriend for the problems that heroin caused, but she does admit there was a time when she was furious with her mom.
"I don't hate her any more it's just like that feeling, that anger, when it was all happening," she said. "And I also hated her boyfriend. I hated him more than anything. I even got arrested because I sent him death threats. Like, I was furious with this guy, because he was tearing my mother and I apart. And, I want to say I don't hate him either. It's a matter of forgiveness. I started to realize that it's not him that's causing it, it's the drugs. It's the fact that he started doing drugs, and it's not him that I hate, it's the way that drugs changed him."
I met her at a SADD meeting at her school, which stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions. She’s a member of that group. The counselor of the group introduced me to some of the students and Angie was part of that team. What SADD does, is it’s basically a group of high school students who try to help guide their peers and help them make smart decisions. They'll bring in speakers, like drug addicts who have come clean, or felons, or a lot famous people who have experience with addiction, to try and educate teenagers about drug abuse.
If more kids appear to be gaining access to prescription drugs or heroin, what's being done in the schools about it?
Each community is approaching the problem differently. What's interesting is the perception of the problem. When I spoke to a lot of students in urban school districts, they tell me that pills and heroin have always been around, and that it's only becoming an issue because it's affecting the affluent communities, which are mostly white communities. And then there's also the argument that in the affluent communities, the pressures to succeed are pretty high and that can translate into the desire to seek out drugs to escape some of that pressure.
I spoke with Kristen Granatek about this. She's with the Governor's Prevention Partnership, they’re also the statewide coordinator for all the SADD programs in Connecticut. She says that education programs are not trying to scare kids any more, like they used to, instead they're relying on them to teach each other.
"You have to arm kids with information, you have to have kids who are supporting one another and talking to each other and having parents who are talking to their kids and having those conversations early on and keeping that door open," Granatek said. "And you also have to have other adults in their lives supporting those kids. and it's all focused around kids making healthy decisions. So it's not just to say, 'Don't so it,' it's to think about what the impact is on your life."
This is the kind of the trend now with education programs. The drug landscape is much more complex than it was in the past, the number and availability of prescription opioids out there has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, and also with social media, the internet, tougher demands at school -- the bottom line is that teenagers are actually best suited to teach each other about drug abuse.
WNPR’s Opioid Addiction Crisis Reporting Initiative is supported by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.