Teen substance abuse becoming epidemic


KINGSPORT - There's a big white elephant called teenage substance abuse living in our homes and schools.

And those that have been trampled by it say our community can't afford to ignore the problem any longer.

A recent series of interviews with teens and drug counselors suggests that the problem of teen drug and alcohol abuse is more of a problem than many parents and school officials realize.

According to national statistics for 2002, 28.8 percent of teens age 12 to 20 recently drank alcohol, and 20.6 percent had used marijuana - a slight decrease from last year. Nearly 53.8 percent of young adults age 18 to 25 had used marijuana.

And more than half of youths age 12 to 17 indicated it would be fairly or very easy to obtain marijuana. Heroin and hallucinogen use among teens has increased in the past two years, with use of drugs such as ecstasy reaching the highest level yet in 2001.

The percent of youths age 12 to 17 who have tried cocaine increased slightly from the year before from 2.3 percent to 2.7 percent in 2002. One encouraging fact is that teens were less likely to use drugs or alcohol if they perceived that their parents would disapprove. Statistics that address teen drug use in East Tennessee are scarce, but Nina Hancock, a therapist at Frontier Health's drug and alcohol abuse day treatment center, can attest with personal experience of what is going on with area teens.

"I would think we are right around what the nation is, and the surveys I have seen are 20 to 43 percent use. ... The kids here tell me that 90 to 100 percent of kids use, and when I talk to other kids like at my youth group or any time I talk to other kids, they tell me 70 percent.

"I think it is more prevalent than some of our studies and what some of us like to believe - at least with experimentation,'' said Hancock. The major drug for local teens is still alcohol and marijuana, because Hancock said they are so easily accessible.

But Hancock said she has seen a trend in kids taking prescription medication, or over-the-counter drugs like Coricidin. Taken in high doses, the common cold medicine can produce a hallucinogenic effect.

Parents may not recognize that their teen may have a drug problem until it's too late, Hancock said. What seems to be normal teen behavior could be signs of addiction.

"Most parents don't realize the multiple drugs that kids have experimented with. ... Even then, some of the problems of drug use fit problems of adolescence: the moodiness, the personality changes. It's hard for parents to know and believe that this is going on,'' Hancock said.

Sullivan County Juvenile and Domestic Court Judge Stephen Jones said he usually sees teens with a drug problem as they are spiraling toward a serious addiction.

Of the 233 cases that Jones heard a week prior to an interview with the Times-News, he said about 30 percent of those were drug and alcohol related charges.

Jones also heard 11 neglect cases - six of which were alcohol and drug related. The judge said alcohol and drug abuse is by far the number one reason children are removed from their homes in Sullivan County. In Jones' criminal court, 27 of 67 cases in one day were alcohol and drug related specific charges.

But the number understates the extent of the problem, Jones said. "Even though 40 percent were direct charges. Once we do an assessment of the child - even though his charge may have been theft or burglary, same with adults - you find out that they have an alcohol and drug problem, even though they weren't charged."

Teens who run into problems with drugs and alcohol may end up in Kingsport's Comprehensive Community Services Adolescent Treatment Center. The center treats an average of 250 teenage boys a year from throughout Eastern Tennessee, with girls treated at other locations in the state.

Program Manager Missy Glisson said the center sees kids from all backgrounds dealing with a wide range of drug use. The center provides a four-month treatment similar to that of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous programs.

"The common link is they all have some issue with alcohol and drugs. There is a wide range from short-term experimentation to long-term use and addiction, but that is their common link. We don't do detox, but we pretty much do everything else. We try to address all the different elements that go into the dysfunction of individuals," Glisson said.

"They come from all over East Tennessee, including larger cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga, so that in itself presents diversity," said Greg Harper, who served as the CCS's assistant program manager at the time of the interview.

"There are guys that have lived in the inner cities and guys that have never left their county. We also have diverse family backgrounds - some come from upper-middle-class homes where their family is intact and there is good family support, and then we also have other clients who come from broken homes, from foster care."

"This is just like any disease - drug addiction and alcoholism know no socioeconomic boundary,'' added Glisson.

For many kids, the heart of their problems stems from poor parenting. Of the 18 kids who were enrolled at CCS at the time of the interview, Glisson said the parents of only two teens had participated in family counseling, and one of those families was mandated by the court to attend.

And a large majority of those at CCS have grown up watching their parents use and abuse drugs. It's a vicious cycle that Jones sees in his courtroom every day.

"Generally, it is the environment in most instances. I've had the dad in one court and the juvenile in court charged with another offense. They've seen it all their lives. A child is like a sponge. They'll absorb everything around it. Even though there is peer pressure, still the major influence in his life is his mom or dad. And if they are abusing alcohol and drugs, there is a good chance that the kids will be,'' Jones said.

"Then there are kids that are doing it for self-gratification. To make them feel good, to get that ultimate high, to make it look like they are part of the in-crowd. Usually their parents when I see them in court are pretty good people,'' said Jones. "But before long, the telltale signs are there. They will notice new friends. The kids that make great grades, suddenly their grades are dropping. Their behavior becomes bizarre.

Sometimes their thought patterns are distorted." "A lot of times the parents shrug it off as growing up, that it's not a big deal. They'll come in late at night and have friends that the parents don't know. Before long, they end up getting arrested. It generally is for possession of drugs or alcohol," Jones explained.

Glisson and Harper said they have seen a disturbing trend in kids who are drawn to the drug culture because it is "fun."

They said attitudes in society have changed regarding drug use. Ten years ago, most teens regarded fellow students who used drugs as the bottom of the social ladder - as the outcasts. Now, you're not cool unless you drink or use drugs on a regular basis, Glisson and Harper observed. "Kids are so much more grown up now than even 10 years ago,'' said Glisson.

"I think society as a whole, even in the U.S. is focused on fun, even with adults. The same element that teenagers don't want to work or do chores, and all they think about is running around playing video games and having fun, is the same element of getting involved in drugs or alcohol. They are chasing fun."

Jones said parents sometimes subscribe to the idea that life is supposed to be about fun, and that can damage their children. The instant gratification of using a charge card to buy things we can't afford is the same "high" that teens are looking for.

"We have a national epidemic, really. This is a fast-paced world where people, if they have to cut corners, they will. They want to get there fast. They want to get all that they think life holds for them fast. They'll take the direct route. "Today kids have wheels. They've got cars, and they have money, and they can buy drugs now that they used to not be able to buy - ecstasy, cocaine, crack. And they've got the money to do it,'' Jones said.

Copyright October 12, 2003 Kingsport Times-News

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