If school health care professionals were subjected to standardized tests, the questions would read something like:
What are the top three drugs of choice for middle and high school students who choose to use drugs?
Answer: Alcohol, marijuana and prescription medications.
The use and abuse of drugs and alcohol is especially harmful to young, developing brains and bodies that slug, sniff, snort or smoke. Today's abusers sneak booze in water bottles, inhale nitrous oxide cartridges, try heroin, or smoke synthetic marijuana. Students abuse prescription drugs, often overprescribed, from their own doctors, their parents or friends.
"Every school has drug issues, especially with new kinds of things we haven't seen before, like bath salts and legal funk (a synthetic substance people can buy in a store and smoke)," said Barbara Hammond, school nurse and New Hartford Teachers Association member. "It's scary when you see a kid come in completely unintelligible and obviously afraid. They don't know what these drugs can do to a developing mind." Inhalants, such as whippets, can cause people to go into a drug-induced psychosis, have seizures or die.
Brian Farr, adjunct professor in the chemical dependency program at Hudson Valley Community College, and founder of First Step Consultation, calls inhalants the "drug of choice" among young users.
What are three interventions to decrease the likelihood of future abuse?
Answer: It is essential to be accurate when adolescents ask questions, Farr stressed at the recent NYSUT Health Care Professional Issues Forum. "The longer you keep kids from trying it the first time, the less likely they'll develop problems."
Alcohol and drugs fool the brain into thinking the person is having a good time. Engaging adolescents into having a good time naturally — without consequences — is a natural preventative.
"Over and over they're finding schools that have after-school activities help prevent adolescent substance abuse problems," Farr said.
Teaching students coping skills for nervousness and anxiety can help them steer clear of drugs. Encouraging parents to lock up all alcohol, medication and inhalants at home is another measure.
When students have used alcohol or drugs, Farr advocates addressing them from a place of concern rather than punishment. Students need to know someone cares.
"It's important to find out why a kid is doing this," Hammond said. "I think kids want to change the way they feel. Being a teenager is so stressful." Educating them about the impact of drugs on their brains is also important, Hammond said.
Drug use can activate latent mental health issues. "There can be a closed door, but a hallucinogenic drug can open the door," Farr said.
Some schools have police use Breathalyzers for students going into the prom. Some use passive alcohol sensors. At one rural New York school, students are not allowed to carry water bottles unless they have a note, because so many kids were pouring vodka into the water, a school nurse reported.
Marijuana, stronger than ever, is definitely addictive. Withdrawal symptoms include anger, irritability, aches, pains, chills, sleep disturbance, craving and inability to concentrate.
Damage includes affecting the short-term memory and injury to the lungs. With synthetic pot, plants are sprayed with chemicals, causing further damage to users. "Concerns like these underscore even more how vital it is to have school nurses, counselors, social workers and other health care professionals available in our schools, and not be victims of budget cuts. Our students need them," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees health care for the union.