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Chapin’s “Saving Our Students” community forum addresses dangers of teen drug use

Panel of addiction and mental health experts analyzes crisis, proposes solutions during Thursday meeting at Chapin United Methodist Church.

Chapin, SC (James Bowers) – Thursday night, a meeting and panel discussion was held at the Chapin United Methodist Church to address the opiate crisis effecting our country. The forum was called SOS for “Saving Our Students.” Expert speakers at the forum included Bruce Loveless, a longtime Chapin resident who lost his son Chase to addiction. Others included SC State Representative Chip Huggins and a panel of addiction and mental health professionals from the Midlands. These included Wendy C. Bell, Forensic Operations Captain with SLED, Dr. Bob Stafford, a former Fellow of OB/GYN and Addiction Medicine and former medical director of Tri-County Alcohol and Drug Commission, Pam Imm, an evaluator for Lexington/Richland County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, and Josh Fowler, a board-certified psychiatrist who practices child and adolescent psychiatry at Midlands Psychiatric Associates.

They identified the scope of the problem. Today’s adolescents face ever present scrutiny from their peers that seems to grow more intense with every advance in technology and the advent of social media. They agonize over SAT scores and whether or not their college of choice will accept them, how they will pay for their education if they do get in, and much more. If you factor in fluctuating hormones and puberty, you have one of the most trying periods in a young person’s life.

These stressors often cause a teenager to become anxious and depressed. Many teens are unwilling to discuss these issues with their parents. They may begin taking risks and doing things to appear “cool” to their friends. Mental illness and the need for acceptance can cause teens to make the worst move of their life: experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

They often begin by smoking marijuana, which when used by children whose brains are still developing, poses the risk of making any mental illness worse. Most experts believe that adolescents who use marijuana are also likely to try harder drugs such as cocaine, meth, or heroin.

Drug abuse is a national crisis affecting all ages and backgrounds. The use of substances in the opioid family, which includes not only heroin, but prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, is rampant. According to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opioid-based drugs are responsible for 61% of fatal drug overdoses in the US. Recently, an increase in the availability of heroin strains containing the much more potent opiate known as Fentanyl, has resulted in an increase in overdose deaths.

In 2016, there were 44 deaths from opiate overdoses in Lexington County alone. Figures for 2017 have not been compiled. The prevalence of the drug prompted the county to add a specialized narcotics detective, Alex Mountzouris, a veteran sheriff’s department member who has family members that have been affected by addiction.

The forum, spearheaded by Chapin High School Principal Akil Ross, aimed to closely examine the problem of drug use among teens in Lexington County. Topics explored included why teens choose to pick up drugs, how they get them, the possible consequences of drug use among adolescents, and how to prevent teens from beginning drug use altogether. There were also ideas proposed to help teens recover from addiction and cope with the underlying causes mentioned earlier.

Each member of the panel made a key point about drug use. Bell presented photos of common drugs and identified methods to help parents easily recognize when their child may be using. Stafford told stories of opiate addicts who became pregnant, and only then committed to recovery so their babies were not born opiate dependents. Stafford said that many of these women remained in recovery after birth.

Imm stressed the importance of delaying the start of a teen’s experimentation with drugs. She urged parents to monitor their children’s social media and phone activity.

When teens have wisdom tooth removed or surgery after a sports injury, they are often given painkillers derived from opiates. Bell said it is important to monitor the teen's use of these drugs and discard them as soon as the teen's pain is gone. Stafford added that the right combination of over-the-counter pain relievers usually are an adequate alternative to opiates for pain, and they’re not addictive.

Many of the speakers pointed out that teens often get their drugs from the family’s medicine cabinet. They stressed the importance of drug disposal, something they could easily do in Chapin. There are currently two prescription drop off locations in the town, one is conveniently located at the town hall and many more throughout Lexington County. “Kids have a misconception that prescription drugs are safer than illicit drugs,” a panel member said.“They can actually be just as dangerous.”

Josh Fowler noted that mental health issues are a major cause of drug use among teens. Fowler said that parents need to be supportive of their children, and teach them that it’s okay to admit their feelings. He recommended that parents spend time with teens, to understand them and build a relationship, but also to take away opportunities for their teens to use drugs.

Panel members drove home the point that the shame surrounding drug use only serves to worsen the problem. Many parents may have a “It would never happen to us,” type attitude and feel like their child would never abuse drugs. They contend that open, honest acknowledgement of their children’s issues not only ease the child’s worries, but send a signal to other families that everybody can have these problems and that it is okay to discuss them in order to find solutions.

Some suggested that Lexington-Richland School District Five schools should start drug testing. That program is already in place at Lexington One schools. Failing a drug test does NOT result in arrest for the student; instead the student is placed in a counseling program and offered support for their core issues. Though they may face minor penalties such as missing an athletic event and the temporary loss of on campus parking, the infraction is not placed on their criminal record. This program is costly though, and would require funds be allocated for it.

The panel also identified a need for increased availability of mental health and addiction services. Attendees were provided information on available programs and services in the Midlands.

The meeting closed with a speech from Chapin High School graduate Briana Crouse, who told the crowd of her own story of drug addiction. She has had a long but rewarding road to recovery through a twelve-step program. Crouse’s story is an inspirational one and shows that with faith and the help of others, addiction can be defeated.

Drug abuse and its underlying causes are a complex, wide-ranging issue that cannot be solved with talk only. The forum was but one important way to confront the problem. It’s only the beginning of a long-term plan to defeat the drugs in Lexington County and make sure it doesn't return.

For more information on the “Supporting Our Students, Saving Our Students” Campaign, visit the SOS Chapin,SC Facebook page, or call (803) 575-5400. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction call the 24/7 addiction hotline at (888) 610-5623.

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