For a decade, October has been recognized as National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. We’ve all seen news stories reporting issues related to substance abuse and asked questions like “How could somebody do that to themselves?” The question we need to be asking is “How can I prevent somebody I know from becoming addicted?”

Many families can be under the impression that their loved ones are not touched by drugs or alcohol. However, drug and alcohol abuse is a topic that needs to be discussed in all walks of life. We know kids are facing pressure to experiment. The National Center for Drug Abuse reports from 2018 to 2019, 50% of teenagers have abused a drug at least once, and 591,000 teenagers have used an illicit drug other than marijuana. According to the 2018-19 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.09% of South Dakota teenagers, or about 5,000, have used an illicit drug in the last month. Addiction can happen to anyone.

The reward center of the brain — the part of the brain that makes people feel happy — is more active during teenage years than at any other point in our life. This means that teenagers respond more strongly to rewards and that being with friends makes that already over-sensitive reward system even more sensitive. This super-active brain not only makes teenagers more likely to give in to peer pressure. It also means teenagers might be more likely to do things with their friends that they otherwise wouldn’t consider doing alone.

Laws, ordinances, marijuana and prescription medications are common topics in substance use prevention, but prevention involves everyone being a part of the solution. Prevention cannot be successful without family and community members doing their part to prevent substance abuse.

I can attest to the need for more prevention conversations within communities and families. I work as a chemical dependency counselor providing services to South Dakotans ages 18 and up in a residential hospital. When I gather background information on patients I work with, too often they tell me they didn’t have a role model to teach them about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. Too often they tell me they started using young and missed important social milestones because of their substance use. And too often they tell me they put themselves or others in danger as the result of their use.

I encourage family members to have open discussions about substance use and the pressure to use.  Be a positive role model for those around you. Get involved with community groups, which provide positive opportunities and experiences for family and friends. Helping professionals, like counselors, are within reach — either in person or even through telehealth — to assist families with substance use or even to simply answer questions. Reach out to someone if you feel someone you care about is on the slippery slope of addiction.

The South Dakota Department of Social Services provides services to help build stronger families and community members. Please visit dss.sd.gov to access South Dakota’s Prevention Network, as well as help for mental health or substance use disorders.

Austin Welker works as a licensed addiction counselor and chemical dependency treatment supervisor at the South Dakota Human Services Center in Yankton.

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