Prevention efforts working for Jamestown youth
In a town like Jamestown — a somewhat isolated, affluent community with limited entertainment options, especially for young teens not yet old enough to drive — one of the worries often heard from adults is that kids will turn to drugs and alcohol.
That worry has been a driving force behind the creation of the Prevention Coalition, formerly known as the Jamestown Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, and the town’s Teen Center, now housed in the recreation center on Conanicus Avenue.
But if there’s one thing Laura Hosley, manager of community prevention for the R.I. Student Assistance Program, wants you to know, it’s this: Prevention efforts are working in Jamestown.
Newly released results of a 2008-2009 health and wellness survey of students at Lawn Avenue School support Hosley’s assertion. Of the students surveyed, 97% reported that they had never smoked and 88% reported that they had never drunk alcohol. Ninety-seven percent of students surveyed reported not using marijuana in the past 30 days, with 97% of students also reporting that regular use of marijuana is not OK.
While the survey offers good news in terms of Lawn School student usage of alcohol, cigarettes and other substances, there is still work to be done, according to Hosley.
“When kids get to high school, those statistics change dramatically,” she said.
Part of the increase in usage that happens in high school seems to stem from kids’ perceptions. Consider this: While 96% of Lawn Avenue students surveyed reported not drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, only 66% reported perceiving that their classmates had not drunk alcohol in the same 30-day period. Similarly, while 97% reported not smoking marijuana in the past 30 days, only 80% reported perceiving that their classmates had not smoked marijuana in that same period.
In other words, kids who don’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana think that more of their friends are drinking and smoking.
And that’s where a problem arises, Hosley said.
“Kids don’t seem to know that they’re actually in the majority if they don’t do this stuff,” she said.
One of the efforts recently undertaken by the Prevention Coalition — funded by a 2009 Dept. of Health Tobacco Control Mini- Grant — was a social norms marketing campaign.
“Kids here think everyone at the high school drinks,” said Stephanie Nocon, who works one day each week as the town’s substance abuse prevention coordinator and three days each week as the student assistance counselor at Lawn Avenue School. “But that’s not the case.”
The social norms marketing campaign was designed to spread the word among students that the majority of kids are not drinking or using drugs, she said. Through posters, signs and the involvement of groups like Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse, Nocon said she hopes to accomplish one of her major goals: Delaying the onset of student usage of drugs and alcohol.
That delay is crucial, according to Hosley.
“If you can get a kid to age 21 without drinking or drugging, they’re virtually guaranteed never to be addicted,” she said. “All the stuff we’re doing is research based. And the research shows that it decreases
substance abuse.” Nocon’s role as student assistance
counselor includes meeting with kids individually and in groups, co-teaching Project Northland — a grant-funded alcohol abuse prevention program for students in grades 6 to 8, running self-esteem groups and planning a wide variety of activities aimed at preventing smok- ing, drinking and other substance abuse, she said. Those activities include, among others, Red Ribbon Week, the annual “Dodge the Holiday Blues” dodgeball tournament and drunk driving awareness activities.
“I know that some kids are going to make the choice to use,” Nocon said. “But they’re more apt to listen to my message if I make it fun.”
Nocon recently worked with students using goggles that simulate being drunk, she said.
“I had the fifth and sixth-grade students walk a line while wearing them,” she said. “And I had seventh and eighth-graders try to shoot a ball.”
In addition to prevention efforts, Nocon also meets with students who need to talk — especially those who are thinking about using drugs or alcohol, or those who already have. There are no records kept from her student visits, she said, and none of what she and students talk about is shared with administrators or anyone else, unless students are being abused or are at risk of hurting themselves or other people.
Nocon said she also helps organize an annual ice cream social so that Davisville, Wickford and Jamestown kids can get to know each other before they start high school.
“The summer between eighth and ninth grade is a dangerous time” for substance use, she said.
The student assistance counselor role is a vital one in preventing substance abuse, according to Hosley.
“At the high school, it’s like an emergency room,” she said. “Kids line up and you have to say, ‘OK, who has tears in their eyes?’ when deciding who to see first. Student assistance is the most important position we could have. I guarantee that if she went away, those numbers would go up.”
The Prevention Coalition is actively seeking parents, students and other community members who want to get involved.
“We need the community to support this effort,” Hosley said. “There need to be clear, consistent messages across the board.”
Nocon agreed, adding, “We need more people to get involved so we can accomplish our goals. The more people who are passionate about it, the better.”