By Nick Manetto
As students throughout the country settle in to a new academic year, educators and school counselors at our nation's Catholic schools stand ready to address the ongoing problem of substance abuse.
Just as the breadth and depth of abuse and substances of choice vary to some degree depending on region of the country and socioeconomic settings, so do the specific prevention efforts of each school and diocese. But while exact approaches may fluctuate, counselors and education leaders in our Catholic schools agree that the Catholic faith is critical to their efforts in preventing abuse or in assisting students in need.
For more than 30 years, the federal government has administered the "Monitoring the Future" survey to measure levels of drug abuse by high school seniors and sophomores, and eighth-graders. According to the 2006 study, alcohol remains the substance most often abused, followed by marijuana. In 2006, 73 percent of high school seniors reported using alcohol during their lifetime, and 67 percent during the past year. As for marijuana, 32 percent of seniors admitted to using it during the past year, and 18 percent during the past month.
While overall rates of abuse are on the decline, the most recent study did report several negative trends, including increased abuse of prescription drugs and a decline in the percentage of younger students (eighth grade) who perceived risks or disapproved of using hallucinogenic drugs and ecstasy.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, more than 70,000 students are enrolled in Catholic schools throughout the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Eileen Dwyer is tasked with coordinating the diocese's substance abuse-prevention efforts.
"We have 55,000 kids in our elementary schools and about 17,000 in our high schools," she said. "Our drug, alcohol and substance abuse reflects New York City in that what's available to kids in New York City is available to our kids."
In terms of specific substances, Dwyer sees alcohol as the substance of choice.
Brooklyn's program focuses on early intervention and also targets preventing violence, bullying and gambling, the later of which Dwyer sees as a growing threat through the Internet and poker parties.
Since the program is state-funded, faith-based elements are not incorporated in the curriculum. But the Catholic school setting enables teachers to incorporate the faith in additional discussions on the issues, and Dwyer sees the students themselves bringing their faith to the table.
"Of course, the kids bring it up and it kind of fits the philosophy of the Catholic schools, to revere our bodies and don't do self-destructive things," she told OSV. "If [the students] understand that this is all part of taking care of themselves and being a good person to other people, it does fit."
Nicole Stacey, a counselor at St. Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland, Ohio, which is part of the Cristo Rey Network of urban Catholic schools, faces many of the same challenges seen in Brooklyn.
"Our students come from neighborhoods infested with drug and alcohol abuse. The way we approach it here is that whether or not a child is doing drugs presently, drugs and alcohol have some effect on our kids," she said.
At St. Martin de Porres, Stacey says the staff is more open to addressing the issue of substance abuse in a conversational and even-keeled manner and that this helps get through to students. She attributes the presence of the faith, along with the school's focus on a student's entire family, as being helpful in their efforts.
"The faith helps us open doors. We don't wait for a problem or shuffle a kid to another building or school," she said.
National abuse statistics also parallel what Donald Teti, an assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, sees throughout his 12 high schools.
Diocesan schools operate and participate in a number of various prevention programs, including broader community-wide secular initiatives and faith-based parochial programs. Schools run by religious orders help focus students toward positive elements of the faith in hopes they will stay clear of substance abuse. Relatively small schools and classes, he added, are another benefit that enable faculty to keep closer eyes on students and perhaps better suits spotting potential problems early on.
Through the omnipresent Catholic faith, Teti sees his schools able to go far beyond the reach of their public school counterparts by looking beyond educational metrics and focusing on the well-being of the entire child.
Daily prayer, school-specific devotions and the ability to involve both the school chaplain and a student's priest in counseling efforts, if needed, are all tools the Pittsburgh schools have at their disposal to prevent substance abuse.
"The faith pervades the entire school. Our faith and our religion classes are primary and paramount to our students. We make sure the kids and parents understand that, and we expect them to cooperate in that venture," he said. "We're not going to just let these kids slide by without any intervention."
How to tell if a teen may be in trouble
The following signs might indicate a drug or alcohol abuse problem. If you suspect an issue, call your local drug rehabilitation facility for advice or help:
Source: American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry
--Nick Manetto writes from Maryland.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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