Forum ‘Connects’ Newtown To Address Substance Issue

Newtown Bee BY Larissa Lytwyn

Hours before the newly re-formed Parent Connection was scheduled to conduct its first forum featuring substance abuse expert John Hamilton, co-founder Dorrie Carolan was nervous.

“I hope we have at least 50 people!” she said.

Ms Carolan’s worries proved unfounded.

At 7:15 pm, cars were still filling the Newtown Middle School parking lot, 15 minutes later than the forum was scheduled to begin.

“This is one of the largest turnouts I’ve seen,” said Mr Hamilton at the beginning of his presentation a few minutes later, surveying the audience of 200-plus people.

The audience included Police Chief Mike Kehoe, Superintendent of Schools Evan Pitkoff, State Representative Julia Wasserman, First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, First Selectman candidate William Sheluck, members from Newtown Youth Services, Board of Education members, and school administration and faculty. Many parents brought their children.

Mr Hamilton is Bridgeport’s executive director of Liberation Meridian & Guenster, a nonprofit, Fairfield County-based substance abuse agency.

Drawing from his background as a certified counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist, Mr Hamilton’s 60-minute presentation emphasized the fundaments of “authentic” family connections.

“Fathers and mothers tell me, ‘How can I best love my child?’ I tell them to love each other,” he said.

Among the many components of understanding the reasons behind substance abuse, Mr Hamilton said that a stressful home life, particularly external expectations to perform, marital strife, or individual anxiety or depression problems, could contribute to substance abuse issues.

Other factors include genetic predispositions and unrecognized emotional or mood disorders self-medicated through substance abuse.

“It’s important to realize that ‘the problem is the problem,’ not the child themselves,” said Mr Hamilton. Confrontation, he continued, should occur with the understanding that the concern emanates from a place of love, not judgment.

“Parents tell me, well, my other kids didn’t have this problem,” he said. “The truth is, every child is different.”

With the assistance of overhead projections of charts and graphs depicting recent Harvard and University of California studies, Mr Hamilton discussed the different types of drugs found in Fairfield County. They varied from the number one choice, alcohol, to prescription and even over-the-counter medications, including Nyquil and Sucrets.

Alcohol use in Fairfield County, Mr Hamilton said, is 20 percent higher than the national average among both children and adults. On college campuses, binge drinking is notoriously prominent. “Now, a lot of parents say that their kids won’t abuse drugs or alcohol because they’re into sports,” said Mr Hamilton. “Studies indicate, however, that, in college, these sports-playing kids are most vulnerable to substance abuse!”

This, he said, was because of the camaraderie and competition that is associated with both drinking and playing sports. Exposure to alcohol and other substances tends to increase on college campuses.

“Of course,” said Mr Hamilton. “I’m not telling you to forbid your kids from playing sports.” The point, he said, was to debunk the myth that sports-playing children are always less likely to engage in substance abuse.

Marijuana also remains prominent. “The marijuana today is a lot more potent than it was in the 70s,” Mr Hamilton said. Often, it is laced with cocaine or angel dust, or combined with alcohol, increasing the likelihood of alcohol poisoning.

Statistics indicate that OxyContin, a potent heroinlike pain-reliever derived from opium and just as potentially addictive, has been increasingly abused. Two representatives from Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, attended the forum to address addiction concerns. They emphasized the label’s mandate to “use as recommended.” OxyContin was FDA-approved just seven years ago. Numerous lawsuits are pending, and the controversy shows no signs of receding.

Mr Hamilton discussed the distinct gender-proportionate changes in substance use. “We use to predominantly see boys. Girls are now abusing drugs as much as boys,” he said. He related a recent Harvard University study, popularly known as the “Pizza Study,” that examined how three groups of girls, ages 10, 12, and 14, responded when asked what they wanted on their pizza.

“The 10-year-olds were confident,” he said. “What do you think they said? Pepperoni, all that.” He paused. “What do you think the 12-year-old girls said?”

“Plain!” one teenaged girl in the audience whispered, reflecting the increasing body-consciousness of girls entering puberty.

The preteens studied, however, were far less decisive.

“They said ‘I don’t know,'” Mr Hamilton said. “And the 14-year-olds? They said, ‘Whatever you want.'”

As girls develop, he said, they tend to become more passive and, perhaps, more vulnerable to drug abuse.

A strong preventative effort to combat this tendency, he said, could be in the hands of girls’ fathers.

“Girls’ self-esteem comes from their dads,” said Mr Hamilton. “Sometimes, when girls are 10, 11, or 12, fathers are less inclined to be affectionate because of the distinct changes their daughters’ bodies are going through.” Still, he said, these girls still need those hugs. Otherwise, he noted, they may feel subconsciously abandoned.

Similarly, he said, boys need to feel comfortable getting in touch with their “feminine side.”

“Of course,” laughed Mr Hamilton. “It’s tough saying this to a group of teenaged boys!”

In the ensuing question-and-answer period, Chief Kehoe addressed parents’ concern on town drug use. Drug dealers are operating in Newtown, he said. The police department generally knows who they are, and also knows about popular places where illicit substance abuse often takes place, such as the parking lots behind the Big Y and Edmond Town Hall.

“We’ve been talking with [the Big Y] merchants about keeping kids from ‘hanging out’ there,” Chief Kehoe assured.

In summary, Mr Hamilton again emphasized the importance of family connections. It was also important, he noted, that single parents “have their own lives,” while couples stay committed to their marriage. “You can’t make your kids your whole lives,” he warned.

He also encouraged parents to reveal their “humanness” to their kids. Recognizing parents as people, he said, makes familial connections more authentic. “Take the roof off your house tonight, figuratively speaking,” he said. “See what’s really going on. A lot of times family members are in different rooms of the same house. Come together and talk. See what happens!”

“This was a great turnout,” said Ms Carolan. “And we didn’t do it alone.”

Parent Connection’s next forum, featuring officers from the Newtown Police Department, is Wednesday, October 22, in the Newtown Middle School auditorium from 7 to 9 pm. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information about Parent Connection, call 426-9280 or 426-6424. To learn more about Liberation Meridian & Guenster, visit www.lmgprograms.org. For more information about OxyContin addiction, visit www.oxycontin-addiction.net.

Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company