VERNON - As drug over dose deaths hit crisis levels across the province, one school district in the North Okanagan is trying to prevent young people from developing addictions in their teen years.
To do that, the Vernon School District is rolling out a new, potentially life-saving, program for Grade 8 students called Preventure.
Doug Rogers, the school district’s substance abuse prevention counsellor, says as with any city, drugs and alcohol have had an impact on youth in the community.
“We’ve had some kids pass away in our school system, mostly from poor alcohol choices and drinking and driving,” Rogers says. “We’ve had lots of kids suffering with drugs and alcohol as their chosen way to deal with their issues.”
They aren’t new challenges, but there are new realities for substance abuse counsellors. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, the deadly opioid fentanyl was detected in about 60 per cent of the province’s 374 illicit drug overdose deaths as of November 2016.
“There was misinformation in the past that if you try this one drug it could kill you, and that was probably over stated. However with fentanyl, we can make that statement,” Rogers says.
Just last year, a Coquitlam teen was found in a Starbucks bathroom, dead from a suspected drug overdose.
“We work with young people and we look at kids who are 15 and if they continue on the path they’re on, they’re likely to make choices that could really harm them,” Rogers says.
The new program, which was developed by University of Montreal psychiatry professor Patricia Conrod, involves screening children for four key personality traits: impulsiveness, sensation-seeking, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness. Students fill out a 23-question survey and identified kids are then offered two 90 minute workshops. The workshops aren’t meant to suggest the traits are bad, Rogers says, but only to help students learn to cope with them in a positive way.
“The workshop actually has nothing to do with drugs and alcohol, and everything to do with mental health,” Rogers says.
The program centres on the concept that certain personality traits are linked to mental health issues, which increase the risk factor for addiction. Preventure has been tested in schools around the world, from Australia to Europe. In London, the program reduced binge drinking by 43 per cent among students who attended the workshops, and cut it by 29 per cent school wide.
“It has a herd effect, because… these kids who are dragging other kids out to drink, if they lessen their use, the rest of their cohort lessens their use,” Rogers says.
Having been a substance abuse counsellor for many years, Rogers believes tackling mental health issues is a huge piece of the substance abuse puzzle.
“We’re at the point where we can say to people, you know there’s a likelihood if you mess around with that drug (fentanyl) it could cost you your life. And they still do it. That tells us there is something going on in that person’s life, or in their mind, where they need help,” he says.
The program is being introduced in Grade 8 so that counsellors can build relationships and keep an eye on students for the next five years before they graduate. Previously, counsellors wouldn’t typically connect with students unless they sought help on their own, or a parent did.
Not that long ago, schools had a policy of simply suspending kids for drinking or doing drugs, but not anymore, according to director of instruction Truman Spring.
“We look at trying to support the kids in school. The suspensions still happen, but there’s also community interface that happens, so they don’t just go home and do more drugs and then come back,” Spring says.
He says the normalization of marijuana through talk of legalization and medical benefits is enabling some kids to use the drug.
“More and more of the suspensions we’re getting that involve marijuana, both parents and the students are arguing it’s a medication, that it’s used for specific purposes,” Spring says.
The goal of Preventure, and other school-based intervention programs, is to show students who might be coping with a particular emotion or behaviour by using drugs or alcohol with other options, Spring says.
Support doesn’t end with Preventure in Grade 8, or even with graduation in Grade 12. Just last week, Rogers ran into a former student, now in his 30s, downtown Vernon. Like others before him, he wanted help getting the treatment services first suggested to him in high school.
“I saw him on the street, he was calling at me. He was down and out,” Rogers says. “I said okay, let’s make it happen, so we did.”
The younger people are when they start abusing substances, the more likely they are to have addictions problems when they get older, Rogers says. That’s why early intervention is so important.
“If we don’t work on the kids of today, that will be the crisis of tomorrow,” he says.
Preventure will be offered in the Vernon School District for at least the next five years.
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