Raising Awareness and Saving Lives in Bay Area Schools

At Duffy’s we know that we’re not the only one’s out there trying to save lives from the disease of alcoholism. There are fantastic professionals across the world, and even in our own backyard who have a shared passion for helping people achieve life-long sobriety.

We recently talked with one such friend to learn more about what another program is doing to help teens enjoy a fun and fulfilling life. Dina is the Community outreach representative for Muir Wood Adolescent & Family services.

Hey Dina, can you tell us more about what you do at Muir Wood?

My role is one of the most meaningful and personally gratifying positions I have ever had. I act as a liaison between our program and the community we live and work in,  focusing on adolescent substance use and abuse.

I create and Coordinate programs aimed at addressing the needs of young people and families around addiction and recovery and am empowered to follow my passion of education and prevention, something that is very important to all of us at Muir Wood.

We hear that you work with high schools to raise awareness about addiction. Can you tell us a little about what your program looks like?

It all started when we received an email from a prominent local High School asking if we could come speak to their students about drugs and alcohol. The school had some very engaged and proactive school counselors who ran their wellness program and could bring in outside experts to educate their students.

I had never created a program on that level before, but our Executive Director encouraged me to create a curriculum. Since then, the program has grown to the point where we can no longer meet the demand from schools and local communities.

I didn’t reinvent the wheel, but I did step up and begin speaking about something I know well and deal with on a daily basis. I believe that my sincere desire to help educate and eliminate the stigma of having an addiction and being in recovery myself is what makes our presentations stand out.

I take the time to learn about the school, the culture; I collaborate closely with the faculty to create an educational program specific to the school and its population. Every school has it’s own culture, so we do not use the one size fits all approach, our ability and flexibility to take the time to collaborate and be willing to change the content is also what makes my presentations unique.

I also believe that bringing in a young panel of speakers to tell their personal stories and experiences to the students and or parents is especially powerful, as it’s hard to argue the slippery slope that casual use really is.

I coach and guide them on what parts to include in the very short time they have to speak, and we discuss what details are appropriate for each class and grade. We follow that presentation with an awesome informational 1-hour presentation with our Muir Wood clinical team focusing on the “Neurobiology of Addiction.”

With this approach, we are able to answer the complex questions brought up by our panelist, like “what is a blackout?” or “Why do some people become addicted and others don’t?”

What exactly does this program teach to the kids?

Our approach is to not use scare tactics. It’s important that they know what to do if they, a friend or a family member needs help, and not to judge people with addictions as losers or weak. Asking for help is the most important thing one can do when they see trouble on the horizon or are at the end of their rope.

Why do you think it’s so important for high schoolers to hear about these issues?
There are many reasons that motivate me to help others with substance use issues, one is what I see everyday working with both adults and adolescents with addiction problems. It is heartbreaking to see what I see and know what I know, and I’m glad I get to do something about it.

Also, the subject of underage drinking hits close to home with me as I started drinking and using drugs my freshman year of High School. I was drinking alcoholically, though I thought I was just a “partier,” by the time I was 18.

I created a life that revolved around alcohol, a lonely life of secrecy, shame and despair of being such a disappointment to me and those who knew the potential I had. In my early 30s, I received help from other people who selflessly took the time to show me another way to live. They helped me understand why I was making drinking and drugs the most important thing in my life.

I now have what’s called long term sobriety. I’ve been continuously sober for over 17 years. That said, I do wonder how my life may have been different  if I had had certain information like the genetic predispositions to addiction, and if I knew better ways to handle stress and not self medicate.

If I can help anyone learn from my experience, then that is a life well lived. This is what I hope to achieve through this work.

If children are generally good kids and haven’t used in the past, will hearing about these substances only entice them to explore them?

That’s always a good question, you never know. We do our best to not glamorize the issue as it is an issue of life and death.

They may be great kids now, but if they go off to college and find themselves wanting to use substances to cope with life, we hope they remember something from our presentation to help guide them from that dark place and see that there is help and hope available.

It seems that parents are often in the dark when their teen-aged children begin experimenting with substances. Is there anything parents can do to be proactive when it comes to addictive substances even if they’re not aware of an immediate problem?

That’s an entire blog on it’s own, however the short answer is best said by one of our therapist at Muir Wood, Jason Lectner, LMFT. He helps me talk to parents, who even with the best of intentions, don’t realize that their experience with drugs and alcohol 25 or 30 years ago in school should not be compared with the challenges kids have today with the substances available to them.

Jason stated:

“The primary reason for parents to not stay in the dark is that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction is a disease that thrives on secrecy. The easier it is for someone of any age to engage in the use of substances, with facilitation to help avoid the negative impacts and consequences of their behaviors, the more of an opportunity these substances which we unequivocally know to be addictive have to take hold.

This is even more significant among young people, whom clinical studies consistently show are more likely to become addicted if they are using substances early in adolescence. Simply in terms of awareness and fostering honest discussion. I think it is important to ask on a more philosophical level why we as a culture might make a distinction about alcohol being “more okay” to experiment with or to expose young people to with more social acceptance?

Without descending into a statistical debate, alcohol is still a leading cause of injury, health problems, and death in this country, as well as showing significant statistical impact on violent crime, domestic violence, and other social ills. I question at times how we find it possible to rationalize the idea of teaching someone “responsible use” of a substance by directly contradicting the number one legal principle of using that substance – waiting until you have legal right to do so.

Would it not be more responsible to work to ensure that people abide by the rules in general? I know that opinions may differ, but it is a question worth asking. Especially because, in my profession as a substance abuse therapist, I am now being confronted with the question more and more by parents, “Should I just let my teenager use marijuana in the house, so that they do it responsibly?”

Whether it is alcohol, marijuana, engaging in sexual intercourse, or any other maturational issue, I will admit that it is up to each individual family to make their own decisions, but I believe it is worth asking yourself why you are making the allowances you are making and what are the motivations behind it?

In my eyes, there is a clear distinction between the holding the expectation that young people will look to experiment with substances, and identifying and enforcing consequences of your choosing around said behavior, versus willingly allowing them to do so and assuming them capable of managing using as a responsible adult when on developmental and maturational levels we know that they are not yet responsible adults.”

Ultimately, what are you hoping to accomplish through these programs?

We hope to create an engaging presentation that’s not a snoozefest, to educate and inform young people about the ways in and out of addiction. To have fun, to present current and relevant information, to help be part of a solution that SAVES LIVES, and to continue to live a life that exemplifies recovery.

If I feel like my school could really benefit from a program like this. What can I do?

Contact me at Muir Wood Adolescent & Family Services We are always available as a resource for information to anyone who has questions or concerns about substance use among young people.