Part one of a two-part series
The big hand on the clock slowly ticks by as he runs out of motivation. He can’t focus anymore. Anxiety starts to trickle through the tips of his fingers. The small hand passes on the staring clock. Five more minutes. Three more minutes.
The bell rings.
Mark grabs his backpack and heads into the boys’ locker room toward the back of the school. It’s usually vacant mid-day because athletic courses are offered mornings and late afternoons only.
He walks into the stall without hesitation. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees him. He needs another hit to make it through the day.
Mark is not unlike 83.9% of high school seniors, who said in a national study that they could easily obtain drugs while 112 million Americans, ages 12 and older, reported illegal drug use at least once in their lifetime.
Mark, like the rest of users, had a reason for starting. It began with alcohol and then the search for something stronger, yet less visible. He was hurting, stressed and overwhelmed, just needing something to help him relax and sleep at night.
Family heartache and social pressure got thrown into the mix. Marijuana was just available, and a culturally acceptable way to deal with his problems. Somewhere down the line, it became his refuge, his addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly two-thirds of young people try illicit drugs before they even finish high school. The White House Office of Drug Control approximates that every day about 11,318 minors try alcohol for the first time. It is obvious there is a national problem. So the questions have become why so many people are resorting to such unhealthy behaviors, what resources are available for young users and what the community can do to fight the drug war.
Why youth turn to unhealthy behaviors
There are a variety of reasons why teenagers are using and abusing substances, including alcohol.
Program facilitator at the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission Center in Killeen, Keshia Keith, is a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She sees youth on deferred prosecution and on probation. She believes children’s individual motives are different, but for the most part, it starts close to home.
“They are having stresses with the family, and they haven’t found an appropriate coping mechanism,” Keith said. “They try this drug, and it helps them feel a little relaxed, and for a few moments, they don’t have to think about home, stress and school.”
Keith works with teenagers on an individual and group basis. She leads the chemical dependency group at the probation center and has noticed that most adolescents start using drugs as a getaway from the issues they are dealing with or become involved because of peer pressure
In the book Psychology: A Journey, author Dennis Coon describes a psychoactive drug as “a substance capable of altering attention, judgment, memory, time sense, self-control, emotion or perception.”
Imitating neurotransmitters, drugs are substances that release a sense of pleasure or “high” to users.
Stimulating the brain’s reward circuitry, the body senses the desire to have more in order to sustain the apparent pleasure, which over time can cause physical and or psychological dependence.
It is most dangerous to adolescents because the risk-taking section of their brains is not fully developed, causing them to be more susceptible to addiction.
Drugs are differently dressed from alcohol to nicotine, from caffeine to cocaine. Regardless, their effects and long-term consequences are dramatic and often fatal.
Other reasons youth are victims of substance abuse include genetics, stress, boredom, peer pressure and negative social environments.
“They want to be taken out of their situation for a little bit,” Keith said, “and then it becomes something they rely on. Also, a child is going to do what they are going to do regardless of authority.”
There is a huge connection between drug use and mental health issues.
Director of UMHB’s Community Life Center, Dr. Ty Leonard, believes substance abuse is a subject that isn’t properly addressed.
“Parents don’t want people in the community to know their son is addicted to crack, or their daughter shoots up heroine,” Leonard said. “So often times instead of treating it fully, family members will hide or shame a member. The (teen) will be treated, but won’t have external support, causing feelings of isolation.”
Illicit behavior is swept under the rug, causing adolescents to be more likely to fall into the fatal trap of substance abuse.
“Drug addiction can’t be put into a box. It takes discourse,” Leonard said. “What needs to happen is the willingness to open up about the issues with drug use between the community, teachers and students, amongst family members as well as between family members and professionals.”
The problem for the community
Bell County teenagers are no exception. Because of its location right off the I-35 corridor, an important highway running from border to border, a variety of substances are available. Supply and demand for marijuana and methamphetamines are among the highest in this area.
Leonard believes Fort Hood’s proximity has played a role in the community’s drug traffic.
“Soldiers that come back with severe injuries and chronic pain are more likely to be addicted to pain killers and to illicit drugs,” Leonard said. “Because they are suffering, they might use drugs and alcohol to suppress anxiety and drama.”
Belton Independent School Di-strict is not exempt to the drug problem, but senior Assistant Principal at Belton High School said the school has a zero tolerance.
“No school in the state of Texas is immune to drugs,” she said. “But we are doing all we can. Our district has been very proactive.”
Farber has found that idle and bored students get into trouble.
“I’ve watched kids for a long time at the high school level, and I’ll tell you that the kids … I see that get in trouble for drugs, inside or outside of school, most of them don’t have a tie to school, any extracurricular activities,” she said. “Students who are involved, the majority of them, tend to stay away from the drug scene.”
She believes the second biggest reason students use drugs is lack of parental control.
“Kids need supervision at home,” she said. “When parents are home, they don’t have as much of an opportunity.”
Farber believes it may be a generational issue.
“(Teens) seek immediate gratification,” she said. “They have all of the video games and do everything right there and then. The creativity is not there anymore. They don’t play outside until the sun goes down or sit down and read a book. Part of it is a lack of having something in their life that means something to them. I don’t’ know that parents push their children into organizations and positive activities outside of school like they used to.”
BISD has already put into play many drug-prevention measures.
Deputy Superintendent for Belton Independent School District Susan Kincannon said, “We’re constanly working to help our students say no to drugs and educating them how.”
Mark is one of the many students without anything to get plugged into.
The bell rings again, and class is dismissed for the day. He grabs his backpack, walks past the yellow school zone signs and pulls out his cell phone.
“Can you meet me in 15?” he says. “I want the same amount as usual.”