A few weeks ago, my story on the local impacts of the opioid epidemic, including both heroin and prescription drug addiction, was published in this year’s issue of 5280 Health. I focused mostly on stories of and solutions to adult addiction, but many of the addicts mentioned started using as teenagers.
That demographic is the focus of Rise Above Colorado, a Broomfield-based organization that works to prevent youth drug abuse. Started in 2008 as the Colorado Meth Project, the group has since expanded to address drug use more broadly, while also concentrating on reducing prescription drug misuse. Last week released its first statewide survey in three years, and the data are eye-opening.
First, the good news: The percentage of Colorado teens ages 12 to 17 who are using marijuana, meth, prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and prescription stimulants such as Ritalin has stayed relatively constant since the last time Rise Above conducted its survey in 2013. (Alcohol use, in contrast, has noticeably increased from 33 percent to 46 percent.) And less than 5 percent of teens are using prescription drugs or meth (the Colorado Meth Project helped reduce the latter through its terrifying ad campaign, Not Even Once).
- The youth who are using drugs are starting at an even earlier age, as young as 10. “We always thought middle school was the sweet spot for drug prevention programs, but now we’re thinking younger middle school and upper elementary are when we need to respond,” says Kent MacLennan, executive director of Rise Above Colorado.
- The availability of drugs to a younger audience is increasing.
- Kids are more likely to start using drugs if their parents give the impression that it’s no big deal.
- And those who struggle with mental health are far more likely to respond to their troubles with alcohol or drugs. “We need to do more to help support young people, to build coping skills and resiliency at younger ages,” MacLennan says. “Those things are going to help their mental health, which is going to help them make better decisions about using substances.”
A member of the wide-ranging Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, Rise Above has started the Colorado Constellation Project to try to help communities around the state reach their at-risk teens. For instance, the #IRiseAbove campaign encourages youth to post pictures of their favorite activities—how they “rise above”—on social media. Statewide, teens have said that friends and family, outdoor activities, team sports, and adrenaline activities such as skiing and snowboarding have helped them rise above drug use. Hopefully with more engagement through these programs, the next time the organization does this survey, they’ll find a decrease in use across the board.
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