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On the road to recovery

by Theresa Hawkewsorth
Lighthouse staff
Wednesday, November 22, 2000



'Bertha and Amelia'

Amelia* has been clean for nearly two years, but she's still trying to regain some of what she lost because of years of drug use.

 "You can lose trust in the blink of an eye, but it takes a long time to get it back," said the 17 year old who is now committed to rebuilding her relationship with her family after years of lies and deceit. "I was the best liar there was," said Amelia, who occasionally became violent with her brother and mother while drunk or stoned, but she was usually good at acting sober. "I was very good at sneaking around."

 Amelia began using drugs when she was 12 after she started hanging out with an older crowd who drank, and smoked marijuana and hashish. "They were not in my school, but in my community," she said. Depressed because of the way she looked, she started using on weekends, thinking it would make her life better. Eventually she was using nearly every day.

 "I felt it would make me popular," she said. And it did, for awhile. But, by the time she reached Grade 10, Amelia had earned a bad reputation.
"It takes a long time to change people's minds about you," she said. She's only now starting to shed that image.

 Eventually her parents became suspicious. When they checked her school records they found out she was involved with youth support. She had been attending meetings since junior high, but admits she didn't take it seriously because she never thought she would get addicted.

 "I never really thought a lot of youth support in the beginning," she said. But after two years of heavy drug use, Amelia's life was out of control. After a friend overdosed and she got alcohol poisoning, Amelia decided it was time to turn her life around. "That's what we call the big leap in youth support," she said. It was there she found the support she needed to stay clean. She hasn't used drugs for a year and 10 months.

 "Youth support's all about peers helping peers," she said. "There's a lot of trust, a lot of friendship there in the group. It's like a big family."
"It feels nice to know there are people around that care about me," she added. "We've grown very close."

 Youth support started in 1986 for students who show signs of substance abuse or who are affected by an addiction in the family.

 "It's on a continuum from experimentation to use, to abuse to addiction and kids can be at any point along that continuum," said founder George Monroe. "We also have kids who are involved with youth support as a preventive measure, who have never used. The other group we work with that I think is equally important, is kids who come from families where there's an addiction."

 "It offers kids a substance abuse treatment program in the school situation. We found that this is probably the most effective way to do it," he said. "It's a way for kids to contribute to their own health," added prevention and health promotion co-ordinator Paula Veinot.

 Youth support, which remains the only program of its kind in Nova Scotia last year saw over 200 students. It offers a combination of support, education, recreation and outreach opportunities. "What we try to do is show them by various means that they can have a good life, have fun, be productive without the use of substances," he said. In addition to one-on-one counselling and group sessions at several schools in Lunenburg and Queens counties, there's also a children's program for younger students dealing with an addiction at home.

 Every year, 15 students who have made a major commitment to recovery are trained as public speakers and peer counsellors. "This has been another strength of the program because they, in many ways, can be more effective with their peers than we can," said Mr. Monroe, who's retiring next year, but is confident the program will continue. "It's quite gratifying to see what has happened in the last 14 years. We've had a lot of success."

 Seeking support

 Bertha*, 18, has also been using drugs since she was in Grade 6.

 "I just didn't feel very good about myself," she said. "I didn't fit in. I had a hard home life and I just thought it would take everything away, make everything better."

 She started hanging out with an older crowd who welcomed her into their group. They introduced her to alcohol, marijuana and hash. For the first time in her life, Bertha felt cool. Occasionally, one of the older students would sign her out of school, pretending they were taking her to an appointment for her parents. Instead, they would get high. "They treated me like I was part of the crowd," she said. Weekend binges soon turned to daily highs on alcohol, marijuana or hash and later, other drugs.

 Although Bertha had been attending youth support since she was 13, crediting her home life, she hadn't admitted using drugs. By the end of Grade 9, she realized she couldn't hide it anymore.  "I was just getting really out of control and I was scared," she said. Eventually she confessed to her mother. "She cried a lot, she was very upset and disappointed. I'm still waiting for her to trust me," said Bertha, who had started selling her possessions and stealing to pay for her habit.

 That's common for substance abusers desperate for a fix, said Ms Veinot. Many exchange sexual favours for drugs.

 Bertha quit, then relapsed, then quit again after spending five days in detox. "I slept a lot. I cleared my head," she said. She has been clean for six months. She relies on the weekly meetings at her school for support. "These people care for me," she said.

 While these stories may frighten some people, they are alarmingly familiar to youth support staff.

 "It's an issue no matter what school you go to," said Ms Veinot. That's backed up by a 1998 study which found an upward trend in the prevalence of drug use between 1991 and 1998. "Alcohol, tobacco and cannabis are the top three drugs used by youth."

  A drug is defined as any substance that changes the way the mind or body functions. That includes nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, prescription medications, inhalants, and illegal drugs like cannabis. Multiple drug use, which often includes tobacco and alcohol, is common in youth who are harmfully involved. While there are similarities among the youth who seek help from youth support, there are as many differences. There is no typical teenage substance abuser, said Ms Veinot.

 "That's what makes this such a difficult issue to address because there's no hard fast rules," she said. Everyone has a different story."

 * Names have been changed



The standardized Student Drug Use Survey evaluates patterns of alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, gambling and the consequences of those behaviours among adolescents enrolled in Grades 7, 9, 10 and 12 in the Atlantic provinces. Results of the last survey, completed in 1998, confirmed an upward trend in the prevalence of drug use between 1991 and 1998.

 The following information was taken from that survey.

 In Nova Scotia the percentage of students who

 - consume alcohol increased by 12 per cent.

 - consume alcohol more often than once a month increased by 30 per cent, from 25.4 per cent to 33 per cent.

 - smoke cigarettes increased by almost 40 per cent.

 - smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day increased by 50 per cent, from 4.8 per cent to 7.4 per cent.

 - use alcohol, tobacco and cannabis doubled, from 12.4 per cent to 24.9 per cent. They continue to be the drugs most commonly used by adolescent students in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador.

 - use cannabis, medical or non-medical stimulants, psilocybin/mescaline, non-medical tranquillizers, cocaine or crack cocaine, PCP and heroin, increased markedly, often doubling.

 - use cannabis more often than once a month tripled, from 4.4 per cent to 13.5 per cent. The percentage of students who use cannabis is markedly higher in Nova Scotia, 38 per cent, than in the other Atlantic provinces.

 

There was also an upward trend in the prevalence of use of cocaine or crack cocaine and heroin.
 

The situation concerning LSD is less clear. Although the percentage of students who use LSD was much higher in both 1996 and 1998 compared with 1991, 1998 may be signalling the start of a decrease in the prevalence of LSD use among adolescent students.
 

 Conclusions

 Recognizing an upward trend is important because it points to a potential increase in the risk and consequences of drug use. From a population health perspective, the economic costs of substance abuse are substantial. In 1992, substance abuse cost Nova Scotia an estimated 3.6 per cent of the provincial Gross Domestic Product, placing this province second highest among all the provinces for its total cost of substance abuse. Furthermore, most of the economic costs of substance abuse was due to tobacco use. Thus, a 40 per cent increase in cigarette smoking and a 50 per cent increase in the proportion who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day constitutes a major health issue for Nova Scotia. That 38 per cent of adolescent students have used cannabis at least once in the course of the year and 14 per cent have done so more often than once a month also represents a considerable overall risk to our adolescent population.

 Finally, the upward trend in the prevalence of use of all three drugs, alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, by Nova Scotia adolescents is worrisome. That pattern of multiple drug use is known to be associated with the heaviest consumption, the greatest number of episodes of drunkenness, and the greatest number of alcohol-related problems.

 * Participation in this survey was anonymous and confidential. Altogether, 13,539 students in the Atlantic Provinces completed the questionnaire. The Nova Scotia results are based on the responses of 3,755 students in those Grades 7, 9, 10 and 12. 


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