Local coalition focusing on substance abuse prevention

TURNERS FALLS — More can be done to head off potential substance abuse early in a youth’s life, said members of the Communities That Care Coalition Friday, while acknowledging efforts to counter the area’s ongoing heroin epidemic.

At its bi-annual meeting, about 60 members of the coalition — local officials in the health, education and human services fields — sought advice from organizations outside Franklin County that are already working on preventing substance abuse before it begins.

Kat Allen, one of the coalition’s coordinators, said that a regional school health task force will soon be meeting with area superintendents to discuss strategies that can be used in the county’s schools.

The Athol-based Valuing Our Children organization has a program that nurtures and supports parents so that they can improve their children’s self-esteem.

“When we feel better about ourselves, we make better choices,” said Heather Bialecki, the organization’s director of training and programs. “Unfortunately, some parents really don’t know how to help their children feel good about themselves.”

If children develop coping skills and positive childhood memories, they’ll feel stronger about saying “no” to drugs, said Bialecki. The nurturing program is especially important for parents of children in middle school, because that’s the time where the youths are developing into who they will become as adults, she said.

A screening process can also be an effective way to detect early signs of a problem, said Karen Jarvis-Vance, the Northampton Public Schools’ director of health services, education and safety for Northampton Public Schools.

Northampton was one of three schools last year to participate in the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program last year. Nurses gave 222 freshmen a paper survey about their drug or alcohol use, which they filled out during the student’s regular vision, hearing and overall health screening.

Of those students, 34 answered in a way that prompted nurses to ask more questions later on during the screening. From there, students were referred to an in-school counselor who met with them at a later time.

It’s harder when students graduate high school and enter college, where they are often surrounded by influences that encourage heavy drinking, said Sally Linowski, an assistant dean of students at the University of Massachusetts.

Trying to educate students about the dangers of binge drinking and drugs isn’t effective, said Linowski. The Campus and Community Coalition, which she co-chairs, focuses instead on trying to limit alcohol availability, increasing law enforcement efforts and offering other social events for students.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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