Less Stigma Against Drugs Fueling Drug Abuse among Adolescents

In Ridgefield, Connecticut—and all over the world—illegal drug use is a growing problem among school-aged adolescents. What’s more, kids are abusing legal prescription drugs, many of which are highly addictive.

“There’s absolutely no stigma against drug use among kids any more,” Liz Jorgenson of Insight Counseling told the Ridgefield school board. She explained that over the last 10 years, even among “high-achieving students,” the use of illegal drugs has become widely accepted.

“It’s very cool to use drugs amongst kids—it’s not looked down upon at all,” she said. “Many students just do not see substance abuse as a problem.”

Jorgenson said she sees young people who are recently out of school as well as students who are addicted to prescription drugs. “It’s very prevalent,” she said. “I probably sent 30 kids to in-patient rehab from Ridgefield last year.”

She also said that there have been a few fatal overdoses in the area in recent years, including one in Ridgefield last fall. “Overdose deaths are the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among young people,” she explained.

“You can correlate the upswing in overdose deaths to the availability of the new synthetic opiates, OxyContin, and hydrocodone. Teenagers are really impulsive and do lots of stupid things and they don’t have any idea how dangerous these substances are,” she said.

Narcotic painkillers are particularly dangerous because the amount that can be fatal isn’t that much more than the amount needed to get the “high” that kids are seeking. “I can’t tell you how many near-miss overdoses I’ve had in this area,” Jorgenson said.

School, police, and town officials agreed at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting that any success in diminishing the use of drugs and alcohol by Ridgefield’s young people will come only with the commitment of the town’s parents.

“A lot of kids I know kind of take a cat-and-mouse approach—it’s kind of fun to break rules,” Jorgenson said. “A lot of children around here are so privileged and so indulged there’s very little to rebel against that’s not a felony.”

Superintendent of Schools Deborah Low said, “The schools and community have a common commitment to fighting substance abuse.” But the public servants at the meeting said drug abuse is not a battle that town institutions can win by themselves.

“‘What is the school board doing about the major drug problem at the high school?’ I hear that a lot from parents,” said board member John Palermo. “How do we get across to the parents that the major responsibility is not the board’s—it’s theirs?”

“As families we are the number-one role model for our kids,” said parent and businesswoman Suzanne Brennan, who is seeking a seat on the Ridgefield Prevention Council. “But the school still has to provide a safe environment for our kids.” She said she knew of students who were “offered prescription pills over the lunchroom table” at the high school.

Teenagers are very social and group-minded, Jorgenson said, adding that some success had been found in strategies that attempt to establish a social culture within a group—perhaps even a school—where drug use isn’t accepted, and staying clean becomes what kids admire and aspire to.

Not all young people will buy into such a program, but it’s a prevention strategy that can reach large numbers if the ethic takes root and gains momentum in a school or other subculture.

“Any prevention program that can look at changing the social norm for a group will have the greatest prevention effect for the group,” Jorgenson said.

She also said that research has shown that “short-term interventions by adults that have a caring relationship with a kid, that are non-punitive, are very effective.”


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