Every September since 1989, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration celebrates National Recovery Month. Cities and towns all over the country, including Winchester, participate with events and speakers to highlight those in recovery and shed light on addiction.
The month aims to show that behavioral health is essential to overall health, prevention works, treatment is effective, and people do recover.
This year, as it has done for the past two years, Winchester will take part in the Voices 4 Recovery & Remembrance event. It takes place on the Stoneham Town Common and is a collaboration between the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition and a partnership of Medford, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Winchester. This is just one of the ways that the town hopes to highlight the (many) roads to recovery. It takes place on Tuesday, Sept. 18 from 6 - 7 p.m.
For more information on this event call 781-475-5645 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In all, Winchester may not be a town that seems to be teeming with addicts. There aren’t daily (or even weekly) police reports about drug arrests or overdoses or stings. That could also be true for many towns in Middlesex County. However, it doesn’t mean addiction doesn’t live in Winchester.
Police Lt. Dan O’Connell said, about addiction, “it’s a problem everywhere.”
But Winchester, like so many communities, has ways of dealing with the issue (and the issues that lead to addiction). The Voices 4 Recovery program is one way. Another is by reaching out to the youth in town through a Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Last year’s survey was sponsored by Lahey Health who provided funding to conduct the survey and develop a series of district-level reports for each participating school district as well as regional support for the entire Middlesex League.
The survey, established in 1990, was developed to monitor risky behavior among school-aged youth and young adults. It monitors mental health, alcohol and tobacco use (and other drugs), sexual behavior related to unintentional pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Of course, as with any survey, there are bound to be some people who don’t answer every question honestly, but as Lt. O’Connell noted, the results can still be used as a “good indicator of the direction the kids are going in.”
While he knows the town can’t take the results 100 percent seriously, “I’m comfortable the kids are answering realistically.”
The most recent survey results showed that while 15-20 percent of children and adolescents are suffering from some form of mental disorder, Winchester students were slightly less likely than other students in the Middlesex League to take medication or receive treatment to deal with those behavioral or mental conditions or emotional problems. When you combine that with the findings that show that Winchester students are just as likely to report suicidal thoughts and behaviors, it means that they might not be reporting it.
The survey also showed the most negative stressors for middle school students were school demands/expectations and busy schedules while the most stressful parts of school was keeping up with schoolwork.
Overall, high school students reported higher rates of hopelessness (25 percent) and wanting to hurt themselves (15 percent) as compared to other Middlesex League region students. High school students also thought about and even attempted suicide at a higher risk than their counterparts. Almost 14 percent surveyed said they had contemplated attempting suicide. Four percent said they actually attempted it.
Middle school students, on the other hand, thought about suicide slightly less than their high school peers (13.5 percent) and less attempted it.
When it comes to tobacco products, middle school students surveyed about the same as their Middlesex League counterparts, except they were less likely to report ever using electronic vapor products. Vaping is very trendy now, according to Lt. O’Connell, and the police continue to educate parents about the deadly effects. Some would argue it’s the “cooler” alternative to smoking, though it’s hardly any healthier.
Only about one percent of middle schoolers admitted to either smoking now or having tried cigarettes.
For high school students, 18 percent said they smoked at least once and 10 percent were current smokers. This puts them further ahead of their regional peers, as less than seven percent of other communities surveyed admitted to smoking regularly.
When it comes to alcohol, it is the most abused drug by young people. Reports show that 15 percent of teens have tried at least one drink by age 15 and 60 percent by age 18. Even worse, 90 percent consume their alcohol by binge drinking. Underage drinking can lead to death, serious injury, impaired judgment, increased risk of physical and sexual assault, altered brain development, and a higher chance of alcohol dependence later in life.
More than half of the high school students surveyed said they never drank and one-third said they drink currently (one or more times in the last month). Slightly more than 20 percent admitted to binge drinking.
Even middle school students are drinking, as four percent said they drank before age 11 and five percent said they currently drink alcohol.
When it comes to marijuana (and other drug) usage, high schoolers said one-third of them have tried pot and 22 percent currently use it. Much less have tried other drugs, though: less than five percent have used cocaine, less than three percent have used heroin and slightly more than thee percent have used methamphetamines.
The younger students reported using marijuana much less than their older peers (not surprisingly) and also less than their Middlesex League peers.
All this means that while drug arrests and drug-and-alcohol-related incidents may not be prevalent in town, students are absolutely drinking and using drugs, and in some cases more than those in their neighboring communities.
Dot Butler, from the Winchester Coalition for a Safer Community, reiterated what the survey shows: addiction is progressive. Youngsters try drugs and alcohol at a young age and unless there’s any kind of intervention, the addiction grows and only worsens over time.
This is why National Recovery Month is so important. It allows the coalition the opportunity to, as Butler noted, “work with youth and their families.”
Although Butler stressed how the coalition works tirelessly year-round, September is a chance to really shed light on the work being done to help those in recovery or those seeking recovery.
“We hope to heighten people’s awareness,” Butler remarked, “and work with people seeking recovery.”
Though this month is listed as National Recovery Month, Lt. O’Connell acknowledged he meets every month with stakeholders and the coalition.
“We do a lot of prevention work over the year,” he stated, “working with the coalition (Winchester’s and other regional coalitions) and with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.”
One of the things the coalition and the police do is hold a Medication Take Back Day each spring and fall where they collect unwanted medication from residents and properly dispose of it. They also had one at the Jenks Center. The next one will be in October.
In all, they’ve collected 6,000 lbs of drugs. This shows that residents are very conscientious about how they deal with their prescription medication and why there is less of a drug issue in town than in other communities.
It isn’t just drugs or alcohol that people recover from, however. Many people suffer from mental health issues including depression. Sometimes that can lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm. But whether it’s mental health or physical health, programs like Voice 4 Remembrance can offer hope to people that recovery is possible.
The upcoming event features speakers recounting stories of recovery and addiction, plus taking advantage of available resources.
“These stories will resonate with and move you,” Butler said.
One major issue nationwide that is routinely discussed concerns opioids. Lt. O’Connell noted that while opiates are everywhere, overdoses and the use of Narcan has decreased in Winchester. Narcan is a tool used to revive people who have overdosed.
“While we’re seeing an increase in (opioid) abuse, the issue is still going to be there,” Lt. O’Connell admitted, adding that the age of those overdosing has increased to those in their mid-20s.
Butler said that this month can be used to “celebrate recovery (because) we know it’s happening. It takes many of us to address the problem.”
“People are more willing to talk about it,” Lt. O’Connell noted. We’re addressing the stigma. We have a long way to go, but we’re in a better place with all the coalitions leading the way.”