Health officials say young people in South Dakota are using and abusing drugs and alcohol as early as 4th and 5th grade. In an effort to better understand why, local professionals are working inside schools and talking with students about coping with life¹s problems without turning to drugs and alcohol. Lifeways is a non-profit agency that is addressing the issue of juvenile substance abuse, the reasons behind it, and how to prevent it.
Kids face a variety of problems growing up. They may be overweight and bullied at school. They can be teased about their looks or their clothes - they may even be abused or neglected at home. But whatever the problem may be - young people need a way to cope with their problems.
Local substance abuse professionals say they are finding that young South Dakotans are using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope.
“One of the top reasons was to deal with stress, to cope with family problems. Many of them had had childhood traumas that they were either in the middle of experiencing or had experienced – they don't have those coping skills. Children are not born with coping skills, we learn them. That's why they use substances. They're not just using substances to rebel - although that can be connected at times - the primary reason why kids are reporting they use is to cope with problems,” says Wilkinson-Smith.
Paula Wilkinson-Smith is the Executive Director of Lifeways – a non-profit alcohol and drug prevention, intervention, and out-patient counseling agency. She says Lifeways' mission is to reduce or eliminate the use of substances by young people, or at least delay usage until adulthood.
Wilkinson-Smith says Lifeways has a presence in schools across the state and is in all Rapid City public middle and high-schools. She says her agency offers resources like counseling and support to students that are struggling with problems.
“There are three-hundred-sixty-five Americans that die every day because of alcohol and drug abuse. We don't talk about this anymore at times because I think people are kind of numbed-out to it. But the truth is - it's still here and it's a serious, serious issue in our communities and schools,” says Wilkinson-Smith.
Wilkinson-Smith says Lifeways' goal is to educate young people on healthy alternatives to coping with stress, like taking part in a hobby or doing other stress-relieving activities - instead of turning to drugs and alcohol.
Chelle Sorensen-Schescik also works with teens to help find them healthy coping mechanisms. She is the Chemical Dependency Counselor for Lifeways at Central High School in Rapid City.
Sorensen-Schescik says she'll work with any student that wants help coping. She also works with students that have been referred to her from the state's Department of Corrections and Teen Court.
“Those kids may have already started experimenting or they may be at a point in time where they really are an intervention kiddo and actually need some pretty intense services. We do everything up until we're knocking on the door of treatment,” says Sorensen-Schescik.
Sorensen-Schescik says she does all she can to divert young people from choosing alcohol and drugs as a means of coping. But, she says substance abuse and addiction among minors is still prevalent in South Dakota communities. She says parents can help their kids decide not to use drugs or alcohol by taking a firm stance and insisting they abstain altogether.
“A zero-tolerance policy has been scientifically proven to reduce use in adolescence. So my biggest enemy in making any progress when it comes to prevention is the permissive attitudes about using - and that's a community issue, that's a parent issue, that is a national issue,” says Sorensen-Schescik.
Sorensen-Schescik says contemporary American society is often ambiguous about their stance on drug and alcohol use, and kids don't always get a clear message. She also says many kids don’t have a support system.
“A lot of our kids just lack confidence. You know they don't have anyone telling them that they're amazing and that they're talented and that they can go somewhere. So a lot of times it just takes trying to work with them on that self-esteem piece and just giving them permission to dream big and get excited - because they don't have anyone telling them that they can,” says Sorensen-Schescik.
Sorensen-Schescik says addiction has no boundaries when it comes to race or socioeconomic status.
“I say all the time that I may have a kiddo on one side of town who has a parent that is an alcoholic that lives in public housing and is on food stamps, but I have another kiddo whose dad's a lawyer who’s an alcoholic and sitting in a suit. It just looks different, but it is the same exact thing,” says Sorensen-Schescik.
Health officials say parents play a large role in whether their children will use drugs and alcohol to cope as adolescents. Lifeways Director Paula Wilkinson-Smith says parental guidance is an effective deterrent.
“Kids whose parents are clearly setting boundaries and rules surrounding dangerous issues such as substance abuse, kids whose parents clearly talk to them about that, are less likely to use substances. It's just absolutely that way in our research. It's a national finding also, so it's nothing that's just in Rapid City, it really is that young people want their parents involved in their lives,” says Wilkinson-Smith.
Wilkinson-Smith says kids don't want to be controlled, but they actually do want rules, they do want structure - they actually want their parents around.
She says Lifeways is there to help kids while they're at school - a time when parents may not be able to be there. She says learning to cope at a younger age will make them more successful as adults.