A Way Forward: The Courier Journal has been at the forefront of exposing Kentucky’s pervasive and changing addiction epidemic, which in many ways is worse than in other parts of the country. Now, as we continue to dive into the human toll, we’re looking at the most effective ways to curb the problem. Find out more at courierjournal.com/awayforward
Serena “Mac” Williams learned in sixth grade that one of the best ways to stay away from drugs was to pick the right friends.
As the 13-year-old prepares for her last year at Noe Middle School, she and her mom agree she’s chosen well, with lots of pals who are into academics and softball.
“I know all of them are good influences,” Serena said. “They’re good people.”
But experts, parents and teens say it’s not that simple. Even “good kids” may use drugs and urge friends to try them — although coping strategies and family relationships nurtured over time can counteract peer pressure.
The role of friends was a frequent topic among Louisville teens convened by the Courier Journal to discuss issues surrounding addiction in a city where drugs have seeped into every neighborhood and overdoses kill more than 400 people a year.
More: Do those real-life addiction stories really keep kids off drugs?
Whether they attend the private Louisville Collegiate School or a public high school like the Academy@Shawnee, “everywhere kids go, they’re going to run across drug use,” said Anita Barbee, a professor in the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville. “They’ve got to know what to do.”
Serena’s strategy is to stay involved in softball and other physical activities, get good grades and hold tight to her dream of becoming a doctor.
“She sees the future,” said her mom, Andrea Witten. “She sees something beyond this that she wants.”
Eighteen-year-old Sarah Walters, who is heading to college soon, lets lessons from her parents and her own experiences guide her. She admits she’s drunk alcohol and smoked pot, although very occasionally, never to excess and with no intention of using harder drugs.
“For me, it was more like a commonsense thing, especially (being taught early that) ‘Drugs are bad,’ and later being able to do the research, where obviously I don’t want my teeth to fall out or for me to hallucinate. So I’m not ever going to do cocaine or stuff like that,” she said. “I don’t want to get hurt.”
Experts say relying on common sense, thinking about the future and staying active are good approaches. But nothing is foolproof, and teen drug use remains common. In a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey last year, about one in eight Kentucky 12th graders reported abusing pain medicines at some point. Nearly half said they’d smoked pot and about one in 60 said they’d injected illegal drugs at least once.
Also: Experts answer questions on drug-abuse prevention
Research shows that having drug-using friends makes teens more likely to try drugs and progress to ever-more damaging types.
“Certainly, peers have a huge influence. Kids can get derailed quickly if they get in with the wrong peer group,” Barbee said. But “parents still do have a role to play, even though children are beginning to shift to following the advice of peers. It takes the parents to set the vision of what they expect of the child.”
Protecting younger kids from drugs
Barbee said first grade isn’t too soon for parents to start arming children with the knowledge that could help them avoid addiction.
Even at that age, kids can understand that drugs are unhealthy and illegal for them to use. As they get older, she said, they can grasp how specific drugs affect the body, and how users may lose control and become more vulnerable to things like unprotected sex or assault.
Over time, Barbee said children integrate such lessons into their own thinking as they enter their preteen and early teen years and get exposed to drugs.
Nychelle Woodford, who lives in the Park DuValle neighborhood and recently graduated from Carrithers Middle School, said a girl once offered her pills during seventh period, leaving her “dumbfounded.” The 14-year-old said no.
“I know I’m lucky to have a parent like my mama,” she said, “because she keeps me in with the good crowds and she tells me right from wrong.”
Read this: Tired of going to funerals, this doctor treats addiction with drugs
Witten, a teacher at Fern Creek High School, tries to do the same with Serena. She isn’t worried about her daughter, she said, especially knowing how strong and resilient she is – qualities that helped her deal with her father’s death from ALS three years ago.
Still, Witten is concerned about how accepted and available marijuana has become as a growing number of states legalize recreational and medicinal use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites research showing that smoking pot often precedes addiction to other substances, but points out that the majority of marijuana users don’t move on to harder drugs.
Serena said she has no interest in any drugs, even as some classmates begin experimenting with pot.
“I don’t want to disappoint my mom,” she said. “One stupid mistake can ruin your whole life.”
In the short term, it could keep her from playing a sport she’s been involved with since she was 3.
“If I mess up,” she said, “it will affect softball.”
Dr. Catherine Martin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said “pro-social” activities such as sports, hiking or going to church can help kids avoid drug abuse.
Barbee agreed, saying, “A lot of it happens when you are just sitting around bored.”
That’s why parents should always know kids’ friends, keep tabs on what they are doing when they get together and check on whether they will be supervised.
Alternatives: Screening kids for mental health issues can prevent drug addiction
Martin said the biggest predictor of drug use is “perception of peer use,” or how normal it seems among friends. While experimentation is very common, she said, every time a teen uses drugs, there’s a risk of getting more and more involved. Kids who smoke pot are more likely to hang out with others who smoke pot. Some of those kids may hang out with kids who abuse prescription pills. And so on.
Some involved in the addiction fight suggest parents let kids know they may test them for drugs if they suspect something. Stacy Usher, the chairperson of the Wolfe County Coalition UNITED Against Drugs, said families in that Eastern Kentucky county can get free drug screening kits. The specter of getting tested “gives my child … another reason to say no” when friends offer drugs, said Usher, a panelist at a Courier Journal event on Thursday focused on solutions to the addiction crisis.
Despite the risks, experts and parents said it’s generally a bad idea to forbid kids from hanging out with certain friends.
“The minute you tell them not to do something,” Barbee said, “they want to do it.”
Navigating high school dangers
By the time kids get to high school, drugs are part of the landscape. Walters said they’re available at parties, homes and even at school. She’s heard of classmates selling pot brownies out of their cars.
Still, she hasn’t felt pressured to try anything.
“I’ve never had someone try to force drugs on me. The worst is, ‘Would you like some?’ (I say) no, and then it’ll be fine,” said Walters, who lives in Portland and graduated from Atherton High School in May. “There’s no, ‘Come on, try it, or you’re a sissy.’ Or, ‘Try it and you’ll be one of the cool kids.’”
Walters has come to believe that decisions about whether to use drugs come down to “what you’ve been taught and what you’ve been told kind of like blending together with the type of person” you are.
She said she decided on her own to try alcohol and pot. Although her parents — a teacher and a nurse — never approved of her drinking or smoking, she said they told her the truth about these things. And they weren’t overly strict with punishment, stressing the need to be responsible. They let her know they’d be far more upset if she drove drunk than if she called them to drive her home because she was too tipsy to get behind the wheel.
Earlier: How do Kentucky communities keep kids off drugs? They UNITE
With alcohol and pot, “so long as you can do it in moderation and know your limit, I think it’s acceptable,” Walters said. “But again, if it’s something you don’t want to do or you feel pressured to do it, you 100 percent shouldn’t.”
She said the teen parties she’s attended aren’t the raucous, “Animal House” affairs some parents envision. She described one where about a dozen friends got together to play Cards Against Humanity and watch Star Wars movies. There was a little drinking and smoking, she said, but no beer kegs or hard drugs.
She admits friends have asked her to try more dangerous substances. Once, a couple of boys invited her to drop acid with them and play a horror game in the woods. Common sense and lessons from her parents kicked in.
“I was like, ‘You all, that’s dumb,’” she recalled. “Why are you all doing this?”
Walters has also witnessed the reality of what hard drugs can do. Last summer, a man blacked out in his truck while driving in front of her house. The neighbor who called police said a needle was sticking out of the man’s arm. Blood dripped from his nose, drool from his mouth.
Addiction also afflicted Walters’ maternal grandmother, who was sometimes so addled by painkillers she couldn’t even hold a pencil.
“You have to be honest with kids,” Walters’ mother Chiara said. “You can’t sugar coat things like that.”
But though Walters has never felt pressured to try drugs, plenty of other teens have. Nasra Hussein, a 16-year-old student at Iroquois High School, said a friend of hers was pressured by boyfriends and others to use drugs, including pot. Nasra told her she should stop, and embrace her love of singing instead.
Experts say kids should know how to resist offers of drugs in a non-judgmental way.
Barbee offered a few suggestions: “I tried it, and I didn’t like it,” “I don’t want to be out of control,” or “My parents will kill me.” Expressing doubt about what’s in a drug also works and can make others wary of taking it, especially now that the deadly opioid fentanyl may be hidden in other opioids.
Nasra said a classmate in a music theory class once asked if she wanted to see some pot, opened his backpack to show it to her and asked if she smoked. She responded directly: “No, dude. I don’t want none of that.”
Looking back: Drugs kill more Americans than guns, cars. Kentucky was ground zero
Experts and parents said teens shouldn’t be afraid to suggest friends get help when they seem to be getting hooked on drugs or are using them to deal with trauma, mental health problems or chaotic home lives.
This way, Martin said, the power of peer pressure can be used for good.
Walters said teens can also remind one another that they don’t want to wind up like the growing numbers of young adults succumbing to addiction around them.
“We’re seeing just how bad it can be and just how bad it can get,” Walters said. “I feel like it goes back to that commonsense thing of, ‘I don’t want to be that person who’s going to be sitting on the corner of the road begging for five bucks for my next fix. We’re seeing first-hand…that’s going to debilitate my entire life.”
Laura Ungar: 502-582-7190; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @laura_ungar; Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/laurau. Reporter Matthew Glowicki contributed to this story.
Some ways to keep kids off drugs
►Let them know early that drugs are unhealthy and illegal, then give them more specifics about the harms of specific substances as they get older.
►Encourage involvement in sports, hobbies, faith communities and other “pro-social” activities.
►Help keep them focused on future plans, such as college and career.
►Get to know their friends, what they are doing with peers and whether they will be supervised when they get together.
►Do things that promote family bonding and keep the lines of communication open.
►Use discipline that is moderate, consistent and enforces defined family rules.
►Share ways to respond to friends who offer drugs, such as: “I don’t want to be out of control,” or “I don’t want it because I don’t know what’s in it.”
►Let them know it’s fine to suggest friends get help if they’re becoming dependent on drugs or are using them to deal with trauma or mental health problems.
Sources: Dr. Catherine Martin, University of Kentucky; Anita Barbee, University of Louisville; National Institute on Drug Abuse
The Brook Hospital-Dupont
1405 Browns Lane, Louisville
The Brook Hospital-KMI
8521 LaGrange Road, Louisville
The Healing Place – Men’s campus
1020 W. Market St., Louisville
The Healing Place – Women’s campus
1503 S. 15th St., Louisville
Centerstone Addiction Recovery Center
600 S. Preston St., Louisville
MORE Center for substance abuse treatment (overseen by the Metro Louisville Department of Public Health & Wellness)
Offers methadone and Suboxone, education and individual and group counseling
1448 S. 15th St., Louisville
The Morton Center
Offers treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction using a 12-step model of recovery
1028 Barret Ave., Louisville
Resource center: 502-456-1025
Volunteers of America Mid-States
1436 S. Shelby St., Louisville
Wellstone Regional Hospital
2700 Vissing Park Road, Jeffersonville, Indiana
812-284-8000; option 6 connects with the evaluation and referral department
Our Lady of Peace (inpatient and outpatient care, plus a long-acting injection clinic)
2020 Newburg Road, Louisville
24-hour helpline 502-451-3333 or 800-451-3637
Support group meetings
Clark County Cares
Care & Share group
Check site for details on meetings
Community Family Recovery Support Group
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
321 E. Market St., Jeffersonville, Indiana
Meets 6:15 p.m. every Monday
Floyd County Cares
Check site for details on meetings
(Non-religious program providing a peer support network and following a 12-step model)
Louisville Area Narcotics Anonymous, 24-hour Helpline, 502-569-1769
Website lists meetings in Jefferson County and surrounding Kentucky counties as well as Southern Indiana locations for each day of the week at http://www.nalouisville.net/
Loss from Overdose Grief Support Group – Hosparus – Southern Indiana
502 Hausfeldt Lane New Albany, Indiana
6-7:30 p.m. 2nd Tuesday each month
888-345-8197 to pre-register; free
Mosaic United Methodist Church
8008 St. Andrews Church Road, Louisville
When: 8 p.m. Mondays
Nar-Anon: Victory Comes After Surrender
Beargrass Christian Church, Room 208
4100 Shelbyville Road, Louisville
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays
Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition
Distribution of Naloxone
Naloxone can be purchased with a prescription at many Kentucky and Indiana pharmacies. To find the closest vendor in Kentucky: http://odcp.ky.gov/Stop-Overdoses/Pages/Locations.aspx
Louisville Metro Main Site
Inside the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness
400 East Gray St., Louisville
When: Monday through Saturday; hours vary depending on day
Louisville Metro Community Site (community sites operated by Volunteers of America)
Behind the Lake Dreamland Fire Station
4603 Cane Run Road
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays
Louisville Metro Community Site
1455 Bicknell Ave.
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays
Louisville Metro Community Site
Redeemer Lutheran Church
3640 River Park Drive (37th and River Park)
When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesdays
Louisville Metro Community Site
Portland Family Health Center parking lot
2215 Portland Ave.
When: 1-4 p.m. Fridays
Clark County Syringe Exchange Program
1301 Akers Ave., Jeffersonville, Indiana
When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays
Madison County Health Department
206 E. 9th St., Anderson, Indiana
When: By appointment. Call 765-620-0165 or 765-748-0010
Scott County Health Department
825 Highway 31 North, Austin, Indiana
A list of some of the halfway houses in the Louisville region can be found here: http://www.halfwayhouses.us/city/ky-louisville. A separate list of facilities contracted with the Kentucky Department of Corrections can be found here: http://corrections.ky.gov/depts/Probation%20and%20Parole/Pages/HalfwayHouses.aspx
One facility not on these lists:
Women in Circle
1624 S. Preston St.
SMART Recovery 4-Point Program, www.smartrecovery.org
National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal scientific research institute under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health. www.drugabuse.gov
U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration treatment locator: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help