Americans are "flat complacent" on the subject of drug and alcohol abuse, and "because they don't know where to start to solve the problem, they just ignore it," according to the associate publisher of a magazine for those who deal with addicted youth.
Sharon Hearn, who with her husband Ed founded "Adolescent Counselor, Education About Addictions," said 41/2 million American kids are in trouble with alcohol and drugs."By the time they're in high school," she said, "60 percent are involved - abusing, experimenting or addicted. And about 15 percent are truly addicted."
Hearn, of Bellevue, Wash., was in Salt Lake City this week to attend the national PTA conference.
The results of addiction are devastating to individuals, families and society. Drugs and alcohol are at least partly responsible for about 70 percent of all crime - for both adults and children. Violence is steadily increasing, and experts have linked it to substance abuse. Saddest of all, according to Hearn, is the fact that "kids' mortality rate is going up, and it's alcohol and drugs."
Those substances rob children of life, she said, through automobile accidents, overdoses and ever-growing numbers of suicides. And as the number of incidents rises, the age of the youths keeps dropping, so that it is no longer uncommon to find addicted 8- and 10-year-olds. Many suicide victims are that young, too.
The problem results in part, Hearn said, from a change in attitude over the past 30 years. "We don't know how to parent any more. We have forgotten how to provide both support and boundaries. We all want to be `friends' to our children. Well, kids don't need parents to be friends, they need parents to be parents. Parents to provide love and guidance while still establishing rules."
Hearn, a registered nurse with extensive experience in substance abuse treatment and program development, said that with this family evolution has come mistaken ideas about adolescence. "We believe it's normal adolescent behavior to drink and experiment with drugs. In our hearts, most of us think it's wrong, but we think they'll grow out of it. We need to say, `No, it's not acceptable to use drugs.' "
It's easier to decide what causes a problem than to fix it, but Hearn said parents, teachers, coaches, friends - literally everyone - needs to become involved. "We need to establish programs aimed at both prevention and intervention," she said. "We need classes in grade school that say, `These are drugs, and here are the things drugs will do to you, the harm they will cause.' We must teach our children to use their refusal skills. For students who have gone through treatment programs, we need recovery classes at school so they have a peer base to come back to that isn't using drugs.
"And we must give children a sense of self-esteem. Without self-esteem, many experiment because it reduces the anxiety they have about themselves. It makes it easier to talk, to be cool. With alcohol and drugs, they can push away the things they don't want to cope with."
Youth become addicted to chemicals in about one-third the time it takes the average adult to develop dependency problems - 1-3 years. Adults take up to 10 years to develop addictions.
Just as positive family involvement is part of the solution to preventing abuse, removing our heads from the sand is part of the solution to coping with existing abuse, she said. "When a child has substance abuse problems, the family needs to get help - for the whole family - because the structure changes when someone is addicted. The whole family structure begins to revolve around that crisis."
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