Our Teens and Substances Abuse: The Rise of Positive Youth Development in Our Community

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The Oak Park Township's Positive Youth Development (+PYD) program wants the community to know that while we are making strides in tackling youth alcohol and substance use, we still have work to do!

A 2009 Chicago Magazine article on substance use and issues facing Chicago-area teens prompted many parents and community leaders to take a closer look at what our teens were saying. In addition to high rates of alcohol use many students referred to the school as "Smoke Park Reefer Forest" due to the prevalence of marijuana use among students. The 2018 Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) reported in the past thirty days at OPRF High School 23% of sophomores and 44% of seniors surveyed reported drinking alcohol, and 20% of sophomores and 38% of seniors reported using marijuana.

In 2015, Oak Park Township was awarded a five-year grant from the Federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention based on Oak Park and River Forest being identified as a community with higher rates of underage drinking compared to the rest of the state. The Illinois Department of Human Services administers the grant. PYD uses the Strategic Prevention Framework, a five-step process for preventing substance use and misuse.

Kelly O'Connor, Prevention Outreach Coordinator for the Township, notes parent groups originally took the lead in youth prevention services in the village during the 1980's and 1990's. New generations of parents got involved when OPRF High School hosted parent forums to discuss the results of the Illinois Youth Survey. O'Connor says that PYD's work is in response to community-wide concerns about local statistics, which indicate youth alcohol and substance use rates in Oak Park and River Forest are above their state peers'.

PYD is a coalition of parents, educators, law enforcement officials and many youth-serving organizations whose focus is to educate and inform the community. The group offers practical insight and guidance to inform the Township's identification and implementation of prevention strategies that support youth in making choices that lead to healthy, alcohol-free lives.

Carla Sloan, River Forest Township Supervisor, sees a benefit to bringing multiple stakeholders together with a shared focus. "Positive Youth Development is a leader in bringing together a wide range of community partners to address underage substance use.   Schools, parents, local officials, police, retail establishments...all have joined together under the PYD umbrella to look at the trends and root causes of substance use among our youth and develop ways to address this growing issue. Engaging in this teamwork continues to be an effective and rewarding experience."

Why is alcohol use among teens so prevalent? O'Connor says the kids report it is a permissive attitude taken by parents and perceived by teens. The 2016 IYS showed 45% of OPRF seniors surveyed perceived that most adults in their neighborhood thought it was acceptable for kids underage to drink alcohol. In the same year, 38% of OPRF eighth through twelfth graders who reported drinking, reported getting the alcohol from their parents. PYD is using Parent and Youth Communication campaigns, Youth Prevention Education classes, and Liquor license compliance checks in hopes to reduce underage drinking and permissive attitudes across the community.

From after-prom parties or more casual weekend gatherings, local teens report having easy access to alcohol in their homes and say that alcohol is sometimes provided by parents at events and that parents turn a blind eye toward teen drinking. Many parents do not consider the consequences or the illegality of underage drinking or social hosting.

O'Connor says while the numbers are moving down, we still have a lot of work to do. "Our rates have been high, but if we continue to use the Strategic Prevention Framework to guide us, we will make informed data driven decisions on how to best use strategies specific to our community and our children."

Dr. Ed Condon, Superintendent of River Forest District 90 praises the progress made to date and looks forward to the continued work of PYD. "The efforts of the OPRF Workgroup for Positive Youth Development are so powerful because they are engaging a diverse team of community-minded individuals to focus intentionally on the needs of the young people in our midst.  Ensuring that our youth have the space and encouragement to make positive and affirming choices is one of the highest callings for our community.  For one, I am very grateful to know that there is such a dedicated and strategic group of individuals willing to pursue practical and impactful solutions to substance use issues affecting our children."

Participating in the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (now Facing Addiction with NCADD) month long activities is something our community can do. Alcohol- Free Weekend is April 5th-7th, show your children you do not need to drink alcohol to have fun. The 2019 theme, "Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow," is designed to draw attention to the pervasive impact that alcohol, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems have on young people, their friends, families and communities—and to highlight the reality that help is available and recovery is possible. www.facingaddiction.org

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