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East End News Project: Coalitions aim to reduce substance abuse

With the nation in the throes of an opioid epidemic, more emphasis is being placed on preventing youth from starting down the path to addiction. A handful of East End groups dedicated to this mission offer year-round programming for students in an effort to help them avoid making decisions that experts say have the potential to spiral out of control.

On Nov. 14, a group called Substance Abuse Free Environment in Sag Harbor partnered with the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA to host a seminar called “Drugs and Alcohol: What Every Elementary School Parent Needs to Know.” The seminar focused on understanding risk and protective factors and incorporating substance-abuse prevention into parenting. According to organizers, the event was part of ongoing efforts on the East End to curb teen substance abuse, which a 2016 survey by the Southampton Youth Bureau showed occurs in higher numbers in the region compared to national statistics.

“The East End has some great, great stuff going on,” said Kym Laube, program director for SAFE and executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Services Inc. “But the East End also has a ton of drugs and alcohol. Part of it is tourism, part of it is ‘come party in the Hamptons,’ part of it is that it’s just such our norm we’ve never questioned it.”

It Takes a Village

Community coalitions believe that the best way to create real, lasting change is by challenging community norms, a process that can take decades, according to Ms. Laube.

In 1998, the federal government created its Drug Free Communities program, which offers grant funding to coalitions throughout the country. When it was first funded, the program received $10 million in funding for 92 coalitions, but has grown to support 2,000 such groups, with $95 million in grants offered in 2016. Two local groups that have benefited are SAFE in Sag Harbor and the Riverhead Community Awareness Program Inc. Grants are worth $125,000 a year over a five-year span — provided the recipients can match the funding with in-kind resources — and can be awarded only twice.

“The coalitions that are most effective are acting as catalysts in the community,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rodman, an addiction counselor and DFC grant adviser. “They can create a program and provide trainings in the community, and then the coalition can kind of let that go and let it run on its own. For a lot of communities often there is a big learning curve on … how to use the federal grant to benefit the community.”

DFC grants have relatively strict guidelines for what coalitions can and cannot do with the money. Everything done with the grant must be based on evidence-based programming, and must impact as many community members as possible. Additionally, the coalitions must include representatives from 12 specific community sectors: youth, parents, schools, media, business, law enforcement, religious/fraternal, professional, youth-serving, LGBTQ, civic/volunteer and health care.

SAFE was derived from the Sag Harbor Coalition in October 2016. That group still serves as the parent of SAFE and partnered with HUGS to achieve nonprofit status after its founding in 2012, which made it eligible for the DFC grant.

Danielle Laibowitz was hired last year as the organization’s new project coordinator. So far, she said, the majority of her time has been spent restructuring the coalition so it can meet DFC standards and most of the work in the community has been giving out information through trainings and mailing sheets on the impacts of illicit substances.

Coalitions receiving DFC grants must conduct surveys of youth and parents and report their findings to the government. The surveys focus on things such as perception of risk and 30-day histories of students’ drugs and alcohol use.

Riverhead CAP, which has been around since 2006 and received the DFC grant in 2013, has been lauded for its efforts. In 2017 it received the GOT OUTCOMES! Award from Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America for its short-term successes in addressing underage drinking.

“We’ve implemented several strategies to address underage drinking in our community,” said Kelly Miloski, Riverhead CAP’s community prevention specialist, “including on- and off-premise alcohol retail compliance checks, our pre-prom and red carpet events, Training for Intervention Procedures responsible server trainings, radio public service announcements, our Life-Skills Training Program at Pulaski Street School and the town’s first alcohol policy for public events.”

Both coalitions also host prescription medication “take-back” events. On those days, the groups partner with local municipalities and law enforcement agencies to offer a way for people — including many senior citizens — to safely dispose of opioids and other prescription medications. The county also partners with community groups for “take-back” days.

“There’s so many seniors who have these crazy amounts of prescriptions,” said Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), noting that many teens will try medications they find in family medicine cabinets, including opioids. “[They have] like 80 pills and they were being turned in, which means they weren’t being used. But unfortunately, they were in the medicine chest, which means that if you have kids at home and they have friends, they come over, one of them may be involved [with drugs] or not, that’s a situation we can prevent with these drug take-backs and with education.”

Ultimately, students say the coalitions have the ability to challenge the perception that underage substance use is acceptable, in hopes of reducing the number of teens who will eventually abuse alcohol, which can lead to other kids of substance abuse, with potentially deadly results .

“That culture is so normalized that we are only talking about heroin and opioids and fentanyl and getting upset about that, but nobody just starts using that stuff,” said Hope Brindle, a 2018 graduate of Pierson High School and an intern at HUGS. “It always starts somewhere else and we are normalizing marijuana, we are normalizing alcohol, and that’s where people start.”

Stopping the Problem Before it’s Too Late

While the coalitions put their efforts into changing community norms and delaying first-time use, other agencies devote their time to kids who are at-risk or are already abusing substances.

A major indicator that a young person is “at-risk” is mental health. A 2018 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 60 percent of minors in community-based treatment programs for substance use also met the criteria for another mental illness.

“In comparison to national statistics, our kids have always reported high levels of symptoms of depression …This year it’s even higher,” said Nancy Lynott, who heads the Southampton Town Youth Bureau. “One of the big things we learned this year is that stress plays a big role in almost every kid’s life.”

Southampton’s Youth Bureau and organizations like HUGS Inc. provide services aimed not only at reducing high-risk behaviors but also at engaging kids in activities that do not involve the use of illicit substances. The bureau, for example, sponsors events like beach nights and music competitions, while HUGS is known for its Long Island Teen Institute retreat on Shelter Island.

“We put them in a campsite for three days, and in those three days they turn in their cellphones and we bring them through a set of activities that are youth-led, youth-inspired and youth-driven,” Ms. Laube explained. “Because it has become very clear to me that there are very few opportunities for kids to connect where alcohol and pot are not at the epicenter of what they’re doing.”

The Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers programming and counseling for kids who are at risk or are already using.

“Instead of giving them the option of ‘I’m going to be allowed to use and reduce my stress’ or ‘I’m not allowed to use and I’m stuck with my stress,’ we want to offer the option of [having] a conversation about why you’re using,” said Adam Birkenstock, the council’s clinical director. “Let’s have a conversation about reducing your dependence on something and replacing it with something else and increasing your coping skills so … maybe you’re less dependent on whatever you’re using, so it helps people move towards a place of sobriety or perhaps using less over time, instead of feeling like it’s between these two extremes.”

Photo caption: Pierson High School students film a PSA about Suffolk County’s social host law and the dangers of underage drinking at a home in North Haven.  (Michael Heller/Sag Harbor Express photo) 

Liv Pulver is a contributor to the Sag Harbor Express.

 This article is a part of The East End News Project. Three East End news organizations — the Times Review Media Group
newspapers, the Press News Group and The Sag Harbor Express — have joined together with Stony Brook University’s journalism program in a unique collaboration that focuses on the opioid epidemic across the region. If you can help by telling your story, please contact us at [email protected].