Voices Needed: Yours, Mine, and Ours
At the recommendation of her high school guidance counselor, Mary Beth was invited to join a group where teenagers could talk about the troubles at home because a parent was abusing alcohol or drugs. While nervous, she was curious to see if other students from her school would even care about her problems, let alone help. She almost froze when she entered the room, finding a star player from the football team, a goofy classmate who made all of the teachers laugh, and a fellow field hockey teammate. She was confused because these teens had “perfect lives” that she often envied. She sat down and realized she had never noticed the solemn looks hanging on their faces until just then. As each spoke, she heard her own family’s problems were being described by other kids. While there were some in living situations that might be a bit different, she was amazed to learn that these kids basically had lives like hers. Some even much worse.
It was a life-altering discovery that she was not alone and that there were other teens like her who were coping and finding supportive help. She was inspired: if these kids could come and talk about their problems and be okay, so could she. So she stayed in the group, learned about how alcoholism was wreaking havoc in her family, learned that she had choices, and was able to make sense of her life and move forward. In later years she joined Al-Anon and continued her recovery from the painful impact of her growing-up years. Today she mentors newly aware adult children who didn’t receive the blessing of a student assistance program in an enlightened school system when they were growing up.
At one level Mary Beth is still confused. She wonders why the schools allowed student assistance to fall off when the Department of Education—which didn’t manage the program and didn’t see how much it served educational goals of helping students to learn and succeed—arbitrarily pushed for ending the state’s portion of the drug-free schools monies so that it could be used for programs designed by the Department. This is a small amount of money to every school that provided the basic support for such locally supported programs to be sustained, and save thousands of children and youth like Mary Beth. After three years of trying to retrieve the funds working so well at the school system level, the money was finally zeroed out at the insistence of the Department in favor of a few large programs created by the Department to help a few at-risk school systems.
The Power of a Letter or Visit from You
As counselors whose work is funded through federal, state or local county agencies, you have a vested interest in strong legislative action and reasonable financial support for addressing addiction in your clients and helping your family members recover as well. The slogan “No Money, No Mission” is very clear. Unless there are taxes paid and funds distributed for quality programs for the betterment of society, there is no opportunity to follow your passion to support individuals who need help. There is power in one letter to your representatives in state and federal legislatures, and you have the knowledge that can help foster the wisdom you want to see in your locally elected and appointed officials who manage your court systems and your health departments. A well-presented argument in a private meeting with one or more of them—along with an offer to assist them in any way possible as they do their research and craft their decisions that impact your paycheck—make it possible for you to be the professional you were trained to be.
Elected officials and competent appointed administrators relish the knowledge, wisdom, and collaboration of wise, experienced, and caring members of the electorate. Becoming a trusted vessel of information on critical issues that impact the people you serve, as well as your career, is an important goal. But the first step is becoming known and being steeped in the issues that you can support with credibility, and the legislation and public policy production can follow.
This year, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) has moved steadily through Congress against all odds, strengthening prevention, addiction treatment, and recovery support programs. Countless concerned citizens and responsible national organizations became trusted experts, collaborated at all levels, and never lost sight of the goals: overdose deaths must be stopped; people must have access to effective treatment and recovery support for the duration and at the level needed to recover; and the criminal justice system must change its paradigm from punishing a person because of a debilitating illness to promoting rehabilitation from the illness in all appropriate ways. We must prevent the disease from capturing our youth and our families, and it starts with each of us. It will save money, save lives, save marriages, and save whole families. If we do not develop our power to affect change, how can we fault others for not fixing all that is broken in our critical social systems?
The Story Remains Remarkably the Same
An “epidemic” explodes; once it hits the families and neighbors of the “empowered” there is a seemingly rapid series of expensive and politically driven quick fixes, many of which can provide urgent help, but too often real prevention slips down under the stampede, helping to set the stage for the next epidemic. Where can we find the voices to send a collective message to those who make decisions everyday about children and families? The message to look for the at risk child, to ask about addiction in the family, and to respond with knowledge, wisdom, and support? The prevention of opioid abuse and addiction begins before birth, not in middle school, and is age-appropriate at each stage, but the message struggles to get above the din.
Recently the Massachusetts legislature passed a law to provide help to the children of opioid abusers (Quinn, 2016). While the intent is laudable, it will help a small percentage of the one in four Massachusetts children of addicted parents being harmed every day by the hostile environment created by addiction in a parent. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study has made abundantly clear what clinicians in the field have always known: growing up in a house with addiction and the related conditions that flow from it creates such chronic emotional stress as to dramatically impact the emotional and brain development of the child, too often fostering a lifetime of mental and physical illnesses (CDC, 2016).
As more states consider legislation similar to Massachusetts, a compelling argument from a knowledgeable professional about the need to broaden the vision to include all children who are at risk could be made. Imagine the drop in juvenile justice cases, the increase in graduation rates, the lessening of theft for drug money, the drop in opiate overdose cases, the drop in domestic violence, the savings to the medical system, the jails and prisons that could be closed, and even the savings to the health insurance companies followed by premiums being lowered! Just imagine! Our united voices can write such a future, and make even more happen!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Quinn, G. (2016). Everything you need to know about the new Massachusetts opioid law. Boston. Retrieved from http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2016/03/14/massachusetts-opioid-law/