Let’s have teens teach their peers about alcohol, drugs

The group of teens stood before an audience of adults and asked the adults to wave their hands around their head and act silly. The adults looked at one another quizzically, but most did as they were told. 

“Feeling awkward?” asked the teens. “Welcome back to adolescence.” 

The teens, part of the PHAT (Promoting Health Among Teens) group, were there to talk about their work mentoring other teens about healthy relationships. They made it clear their job wasn’t to tell their peers what to do, but to give them good information about sex so they could make good decisions about their behavior and so that they would know the possible consequences of particular actions.

Just the facts. No value judgments. Just information that empowers young people to make wise choices.

Maybe sex isn’t the only facet of life that teens would benefit from having teen mentors. What about alcohol, drug and inhalant use and abuse? Instead of parents or teachers or those in law enforcement talking about the dangers of alcohol and drugs — and the potential health and legal consequences surrounding their use — what if teens were trained to help their peers and younger students navigate better choices and help make alcohol and drug use far less enticing? 

A teen who has been arrested after a car crash for driving under the influence might have a powerful story to share. A teenage mom whose child has fetal alcohol syndrome might have another. A student athlete who has lost scholarship opportunities because of one poor choice involving alcohol or marijuana might help other students avoid the disappointment that often is connected with alcohol, drug and inhalant use. 

For adults who might need a few facts to recognize that teens and alcohol and drugs really shouldn’t be mixed, the recent Kids Count Alaska 2011-2012 report from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage includes some interesting numbers about juveniles and crime. “(S)tatewide, property crimes make up nearly half of all juvenile crime and crimes against persons about 18 percent. Violations of drug, alcohol or weapons laws and terms of probation accounted for the rest,” according to the report. 

While patterns of juvenile crime by regions of the state are similar, the Gulf Coast region, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, shows a greater percentage of drug and alcohol violations. Statewide, violations of alcohol and drug laws make up 9.6 percent of juvenile offenses; in the Gulf Coast region, they make up 15.2 percent of juvenile offenses, according to the report.

Federal numbers show that juvenile arrest rates in the state and nation declined from 1994 to 2008 (the most recent year statistics were available) in all areas but one: driving under the influence of alcohol, and Alaska’s rate in 2008 was more than twice the national average, reported the Kids Count report.

Underage drinking carries a high price — an estimated $321 million to the state of Alaska in 2010, notes the report. That includes the cost of teenage violence associated with alcohol use, vehicle crashes, injuries, treatment programs and other expenses. 

All teens don’t drink. That’s a fact. And those that do aren’t “bad” kids. But underage drinkers are taking risks with their futures and the futures of those around them, and somehow they need to understand their drinking may have irreversible consequences.

That’s why the community — read that, all of us — needs to find ways to engage them in healthier activities, healthier risks, cool options that have nothing to do with drinking, say the experts. 

Part of that includes learning how teens think. An event hosted and led by the PHAT team aims to do just that. The Amazing Adolescent Brain Event will be from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 29 at the REC Room, behind Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, 3957 Nielson Circle. The event is billed as a chance to find out what’s going on in teens’ heads. Anyone who works with teens or is interested in embarking on a journey through the teenage mind is welcome.

It seems like a great first step in figuring out how to curb underage drinking.