Most parents don’t want to think about their child drinking alcohol or using drugs.
But with teen alcohol and drug use on the rise in recent years, there are steps parents can take to address these issues before they lead to serious consequences.
Toyin Myrick, addictions counselor at La Grange Park-based Pillars, the largest nonprofit provider of mental health and social services in the western and southwestern suburbs, explained the problem is prevalent among local teens, some as young as eighth grade. Myrick, who leads group therapy sessions, said most of her clients began using alcohol or marijuana and then some progressed to prescription drug abuse, which can sometimes lead to heroin addiction.
She said drug and alcohol use doesn’t just affect the child, but also has negative consequences on the child’s family and community as a whole, and can lead to death or incarceration if not treated early enough.
“This crosses all socio-economic lines and affects kids from all backgrounds,” she said. “Some parents believe this will go away. But it doesn’t and can escalate out of control.”
The main symptom is a change in behavior, where the teen becomes irritable, changes friends or grades start to slip, Myrick said. She said kids often say they began using to “fit in” with their peers or because they wanted to be “like the cool kids.”
“Another reason is because drugs are so easily available to them, and [drugs are] easier to get than alcohol because they don’t need an I.D., but they can get that from their homes,” Myrick said.
Cynthia Frymark, president of the Coalition for a Drug Free Lyons Township, explained education for both teens and parents is critical to curbing the problem. She said many parents don’t know how prevalent it is in the area.
“Parents’ norms and values are contributing to the increase because they might believe that supervised drinking is OK. Kids also model their parents’ drinking behaviors, like tailgating,” she said. “Some kids are drinking or smoking marijuana with their parents. It’s not everyone, but it is consistent in our community. Some parents believe it’s OK to allow their kids to drink at home.”
Teens who drink before the age of 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependency or abuse as adults than those who begin drinking after age 21, according to the Center for Behavioral Health.
Frymark said there was a 33-percent increase in emergency room visits for alcohol poisoning between 2014 and 2015 at Amita La Grange and Hinsdale hospitals, with the largest increase among females.
The coalition has held focus groups with area teens, and Frymark said many of the group members said they don’t believe drinking alcohol is harmful. The groups also found that even eighth-graders are beginning to experiment and Xanax is a popular drug among teens, while LSD use is on the rise, she said.
“A lot of it is just easy access and peer pressure, along with parental acceptance,” she said. “Social media also contributes because it helps increase access and availability. But the community is more receptive to discussing this now because it’s such a big problem nationally. There isn’t as much of a code of silence.”
Anita Casey, director of addictions services at Pillars, said the Pillars staff assesses all clients as they come for treatment. She said if a family comes to Pillars in crisis, the child could be referred to an inpatient treatment program. She urges parents to recognize the symptoms and seek help before an emergency because most mild to moderate diagnoses can be treated in outpatient programs.
“We refer out for treatment of physical symptoms because they need to be medically stable to attend our programs,” she said. “Our clients attend group therapy sessions with their peers, and we reassess a client after so many hours of treatment. Our recidivism is low because we make sure they’re stable and that they completed the treatment plan.”
One of Pillars’ goals is to remove the social stigma surrounding drug or alcohol abuse. Casey said because teens “wear fewer masks,” recovery for them comes more quickly than for adults.
“They haven’t had as many life experiences, and if you hit the right thing with adolescents, you see the change in them,” she said. “They enjoy being here, and they make friends. It’s great to witness their growth and see how they blossom. This is a big problem, but there’s always hope and help.”
For more information about Pillars, visit pillarscommunity.org or call 708-745-5277. For more information about the Coalition for a Drug Free Lyons Township, which has several programs for parents and teens coming up this spring, visit the Lyons Township Mental Health Commission website at ltmhc.org.
Pillars serves several communities in the area, including Berwyn, Broadview, Brookfield, Burr Ridge, Cicero, Clarendon Hills, Countryside, Darien, Hinsdale, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, La Grange, La Grange Park, Lyons, McCook, North Riverside, Oak Brook, Riverside, Stickney, Westchester, Western Springs, Westmont, Willow Springs and Willowbrook.
Note to readers
This is the second piece in a three-part series titled "Addiction in the suburbs." The series is the result of a partnership between Pillars and Suburban Life. The first part of the series can be found at shawurl.com/30pw.