It was the Friday before spring break, and Jordan couldn’t have been more excited. He’d just turned 15, and for the next week or so, he would trade the oppressive constraint of the classroom for video games, sunshine, and zero obligations.
In fact, to mark such a momentous occasion, he invited a handful of his fellow classmates over that night to celebrate this brief sense of freedom. After all, the prospect of a week of zero responsibility can feel like a year to a teenager, even if that’s not quite the reality.
Later that evening, his schoolmates started to arrive at his house. Now Jordan is by all accounts a responsible young man, and because of his spotless track record, he was able to convince his parents to remain unseen (out of fear of embarrassment). The hours that followed were full of carefree activity and good-natured ribbing as the boys basked in the freedom of an unsupervised garage.
Out of natural curiosity, Jordan’s classmate, Ryan, decided to have a peek at what Jordan’s parents kept in the garage’s refrigerator. Jordan’s father stored his beer in that fridge, preserving the innocence of the kitchen fridge and keeping it away from curious eyes. In a series of escalating dares not unlike a scene from any coming-of-age movie, Jordan was eventually convinced to crack open a can and take a sip.
What does Jordan now have in common with 23,000 other youth in Delaware between the ages of 12 and 20? He is one of the 21.7% of teenagers in Delaware who have consumed alcohol within the last month.
The teenage years are a universal experience full of confusion, excitement, and frustration. During this period, teens are asked to accept more and more responsibilities every day. Pair this with peer pressure and the intense need for a sense of belonging and you have a perfect storm for experimentation with substance use.
In an effort to better understand the issue of teen drinking and substance use — and its possible solutions — we sat down with Peggy M. Geisler, the co-chair of Delaware Goes Purple and CEO of the Sussex County Health Coalition.
We’ve asked Ms. Geisler to tell us a little about these two organizations and the efforts they’re making to tackle the complex issue of teen substance use in Delaware.
As Ms. Geisler put it, “The Sussex County Health Coalition has about 175 to 200 partner organizations in rural Sussex County, which is the largest county east of the Mississippi in the United States. It has a pretty high percentage of poverty as well as some issues with accessibility to services.
“Our organization exists to address social determinate issues that promote poor quality healthcare or health outcomes for the constituents of Sussex County,” Ms. Geisler said. “Our goal is to work with partners to reflect an impact model to align strategies around communication, activities, data, and funding to increase our capacity to address some of the gaps, barriers, and needs of the people of Sussex County.”
From grassroots initiative to statewide program, Ms. Geisler described how the organization started and has grown. “The Delaware Goes Purple initiative actually started as Seaford Goes Purple two years ago when we recognized that because of our opioid epidemic, we were going to start a drug-free initiative in Seaford, which is a small city in Delaware,” she said.
“We started looking at some grassroots initiatives and found one in Maryland called Talbott Goes Purple. Little did we know that the demand was so great. Within the first year, it became Sussex Goes Purple and expanded last year into Delaware Goes Purple.”
Both of these organizations have a significant positive impact on the public health of Delaware. While these efforts focus on all ages, they place special emphasis on educating youth.
Ms. Geisler said the first step in the prevention of teen substance use is starting education about these issues at a much younger age.
“I used to work for a drug and alcohol treatment center for teenagers where we had 30-, 60-, and 90-day treatment programs,” she said. “One thing I realized was how young these kids started, and still today, start gateway drug use,” she said.
“Cigarette smoking and alcohol are gateway drugs. We know that certain people are predisposed to drug and alcohol use, as well as becoming chronically addicted. We also know that it oftentimes runs in families. But families rarely talk about this and the impact it can have on the rest of their lives,” Ms. Geisler said.
“So the sooner we talk about the reality of playing with things, or engaging with things, or utilizing things that could potentially take you down a path that will impact your livelihood, your family, your relationships, and maybe even your life, the better off we are. Kids are a lot smarter than we think. They can digest information and learn at an early age how to make better-quality choices for themselves.”
Ms. Geisler is also a strong believer in the idea of “gateway drugs” that can open the door to a teen considering using substances that are even more harmful and addictive.
“Nobody starts out on a day and says, ‘You know, I think I’m going to try cocaine or heroin.’ But they may say, ‘Well, you know, everybody told me that cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and alcohol consumption was dangerous, and I’ve used them and not really suffered any consequences,’” Ms. Geisler said.
She also said peer pressure, along with the lowered inhibitions caused by drug use, can be a recipe for addiction. “If they’re in a culture where people are using and somebody says, ‘Well, why don’t you try this?’, and they’re already somewhat inebriated or under the influence, they may say ‘Why not.’ So now what they’ve done is put a highly addictive substance into their systems that has certain consequences that cause them to choose to use. Many times, that is the way that addiction occurs.”
We all know alcohol can cause dizziness, loss of motor function, and memory loss. These symptoms of inebriation are all due to the way that alcohol interacts with the brain. That said, studies have shown that the human brain is still developing well into a person’s 20s, with very significant development occurring during the teenage years. The period of physical growth during puberty is very apparent, but it’s important to realize that the brain is also undergoing significant changes.
Research shows that drinking alcohol while your brain is still developing can alter or stall this process, leaving a person with potential brain damage they may carry with them throughout the rest of their life.
Ms. Geisler made special note of this phenomenon and its consequences during her many interactions with people who experienced substance use issues during their teenage years.
“A person’s brain doesn’t stop developing until after age 21, so substance use can be detrimental to their neuroplasticity, affecting their ability to form normal behavioral pathways in the brain,” she said.
“We used to have a saying, ‘Whatever age they started using is the age they stopped growing.’ That’s why many people who are addicted to substances act juvenile, because they often get into their addiction at 12, 15, or 16 years old. They stop developing their social skills, they stop some of their information-gathering skills. Plus we see a serious lack of focus and motivation in these types of people.”
From the ages of 16 to 21, not only is your brain still developing, but in a natural progression toward adulthood, a person is accepting more and more responsibility each day. So not only does substance use during these crucial stages of development deeply ingrain addiction into the neural pathways of the brain, the development of a person’s place in society can also be arrested.
“What we find is that when youth start [with drugs or alcohol] at a younger age, it’s usually so they don’t have to deal with stress and anxiety. They can find a shelter from those feelings by numbing themselves and changing or altering their mental state. So they’re not learning to deal with those new responsibilities at that age,” Ms. Geisler explained.
“What we find is a chronic progression of never taking responsibility, whether it’s personally, professionally, or whatever the situation may be. That leads to progressively poorer choices, or what we call a ‘cascading of social problems.’ This effect creates a larger-scale issue of stress in that individual’s life later on.”
Taking into account the efforts of both the Sussex County Health Coalition and Delaware Goes Purple, it’s safe to say that great emphasis is being placed on instilling a sense of community. Ms. Geisler believes the solution to the issue of teen substance use, as well as many other issues, lies in the support system that can only be achieved through a genuine sense of community.
“I would say that a sense of community is probably the No. 1 community-engaged process or solver for any of the social issues that we face today,” she said. “Our lack of reliance, interconnectivity, and support from one another is what drives most of the social issues that are creating problems within our society, whether it’s substance use, racial inequalities, depression, loneliness, you name it.”
People who suffer from addiction issues also often face issues with isolation due to the stigma associated with substance use. Someone who suffers from addiction may be reluctant to seek help due to the fear of being judged. One of the main goals of Delaware Goes Purple is to destroy the stigma of substance use in an effort to create a sense of community that will ultimately lead to people getting the help they need.
“What happens when someone becomes [addicted] is that people begin to ostracize them, pushing them further away from that which they seek, which is connection to others. This is oftentimes why a 12-step program works so well because it teaches a person how to be outside of yourself and connect,” Ms. Geisler said.
Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous place a large emphasis on community involvement in an effort to make a person feel part of something larger than themselves. Ms. Geisler explained the power of these organizations allows other forces to take control of their life.
“Whether it’s a higher power, which to many is a spiritual force, or whether it’s outside yourself in some form of treatment, it’s all about relying on others and forming relationships, and those relationships fill the void,” she said.
One of the most important components of the Sussex County Health Coalition is the Youth Engagement and Supporting Organization Committee. The goal of this committee is to get families to think about ways to strengthen their own resilience and structure.
By helping young people identify the protective factors they can bring into their lives, the committee hopes to help them become less likely to engage in negative behaviors.
“Some of these protective factors include: being a member of their church, or having friends,” Ms. Geisler said. “We try to teach them how to do things that are positive, making them less likely to engage in negative behaviors. This helps families take control, and also helps the youth look at their life and say, ‘I’m really in control of my own destiny.’”
Ms. Geisler has been a major driving force for the public health of the Delaware community. She also credited our efforts at SUN Behavioral.
“SUN came to Sussex County, Delaware, based on the fact that it was a desert for mental health services,” she said. “SUN has been nothing but an excellent partner and supporter to us. What we’d like to see is SUN Behavioral being utilized more for the services that they provide. Our community needs to be supporting them as much as they are supporting our community.”
At SUN Delaware, our Adolescent Program is designed for young people who need outpatient treatment services for mental, emotional, or substance use problems. SUN’s team of experts is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, partnering with teens and their families to help them map their journey to improved health and happiness.
This evidence-based program helps our most vulnerable patients learn how to identify and change distorted thinking, communicate effectively in relationships, and regain control of their lives as they transition to young adulthood.
Call us today at 302-604-5600.