Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series. The first two parts can be found here:
- Heroin and New Canaan, Part 1 of 3: Tracing and Defining a Problem
- Heroin and New Canaan, Part 2 of 3: Parenting
On Friday at work, Ed Milton was visited by New Canaan High School students who talked to him about everything from an unfinished school project to bothersome friends and parents.
Most of the teens who come to Milton—an outreach worker with Kids In Crisis who’s based in the high school itself—find him through their own friends, and family conflict is a frequent topic of conversation.
“Developmentally, they should be looking for their independence, so that is and should be number one,” Milton said Friday afternoon in front of the New Canaan Playhouse, a pack of eighth-graders huddled nearby.
Milton recalled how one New Canaan teen described his role: “This kid was so brilliant. He said, ‘Ed, you know what you guys are like?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You’re a lot like a cast.’ I said, ‘A cast.’ ‘Yeah, a cast doesn’t really do anything. But it provides the support and structure so that the bone can heal itself.’ ”
Milton is one critical piece of a network in New Canaan that spans public and private service providers, school faculty and staff, police, mental health professionals, advisors, physicians, program coordinators and referral services.
We spoke to several members of this network in the first two parts of this series on heroin and New Canaan. In the first part, we traced the origins of heroin’s increased availability and use in this area, including one clinical psychiatrist’s description of physical and psychological addiction to an opioid such as heroin. We also looked at just how youth in town likely are turning to the drug as an inexpensive way to get a high that often starts at a home medicine cabinet.
In part two, we profiled Courage to Speak founder and “Sunny’s Story” author Ginger Katz, a Norwalk mom who lost her son Ian to heroin overdose at age 20. We turned to experts for tips on signs of opioid addiction and what parents can do to preempt and address problems of substance abuse and addiction.
In this third and final installment, we look at what resources—including trusted adults such as Milton, services and curriculum—are in place for New Canaan’s youth.
We also provide an overview of what’s available to parents, friends or others seeking a confidential conversation with a professional who can help—whether that means counseling, referral, advice, or serving as a sounding board or guiding hand in navigating the landscape of human services.
‘You have to reach out to a person, not just a website’
New Canaan parents must dedicate themselves to learning about substance abuse, avail themselves of local programs and workshops that address the issue and seek help when they have questions or concerns, local service providers say.
“I really think parents need to speak up and get questions answered and reach out—and not feel so alone with this problem,” said Jacqueline D’Louhy, assistant director of youth services with the New Canaan Department of Human Services. “So I think they need to know what is out there, what organizations. None of them would be a wrong call to make.”
And because stigma attached to substance abuse and addiction is a hurdle that may preclude real help, there’s a world of difference between making a phone call—contacting an actual human being for a confidential conversation, say—versus trawling the Internet alone, according to experts.
“You have to reach out to a person, not just a website,” said Kathy Brown, a non-clinical community service and support professional—and mother of four children who went through New Canaan Public Schools, her youngest now 21—who works with two nonprofit organizations that serve our region. She is chair of the Prevention Partnership Committee of the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council, which serves as a catalyst for collaboration among area organizations to prevent substance abuse through the entire age spectrum. Brown also is New Canaan liaison to the Norwalk-based Southwestern Regional Mental Health Board, which serves people aged 18 and older.
“I would encourage parents to give the issue of substance abuse as much attention as they would college applications, all the research they do for academics, finding tutors for kids,” Brown said. “There really needs to be heightened attention to the resources that are out there.”
‘Life Changes a Lot’
One of New Canaan’s most active providers of programs and workshops for youth, parents and the community is the nonprofit organization New Canaan CARES, the Regional Action Council’s designated provider of parent education in town.
Executive Director Meg Domino told NewCanaanite.com that New Canaan CARES puts on six to 12 parent education programs each year on topics that include “navigating the teen party scene” and “raising your radar on alcohol and other substance abuse.”
“We also host, four times a year, our Coalition Luncheon, which brings students and community leaders together,” Domino said. “We hear about whatever the kids feel are the pressures they want to share with adults and parents in the community. What they are facing and how they see a typical Friday or Saturday night.”
Other programs are based largely on what the schools specifically are looking for, Domino said, “and what grade-level desires there are from eighth grade on.”
For example, New Canaan CARES hosts a community-wide program for families with kids who are headed into their freshman year of high school.
“The idea being, there are things you need to wake up and realize because life changes—a lot—that whole ‘experimentation summer,’ which is what we consider that eighth-grade summer into ninth.”
Officials in the town human services department are seeking sign-off during this budget season for an $8,000 allocation that would go to part-time help for New Canaan CARES.
The organization used to address substance use alone, but now that it covers “all the of the different topics, from nutrition to depression and AIDS,” Domino said, more manpower is needed.
“I really have a need to bring on somebody that can really, really target the needs of those folks not only that are in need, families in need looking for referrals, looking for rehab, looking for a variety of different needs, but also to target specific programming,” Domino said.
The taxpayers’ portion of funding for another nonprofit located downtown, Outback Teen Center, also emerged as a focal point in this budget season. The Board of Finance this month restored to the teen center’s funding $2,500 that had been removed (for a total of $20,000), after students and parents who use Outback spoke at a public hearing about its importance.
Outback Community Director Christine Simmons, in place there for six months, said that the teen center is designed to serve as a safe haven for New Canaan youth.
“Our business hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and we’re usually here and open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., for any young child or adult, and we’re a safe place to go in the 2 to 7 p.m. teen hours,” Simmons said. “Any young person can come in here, chill, work on homework, classwork, play Xbox, Wii, play pool. I think it’s awesome that our town has a place for young people. And if they are just strolling in town and they feel uncomfortable, then they can come here.”
The teen center also offers paid and non-paid programming, including educational classes for youth as well as adults.
‘Really Important’ School-Police Connection on Behalf of Students
Also before the Town Council right now as it reviews the budget for fiscal year 2015 is the question of whether to fund a full-time police officer at Saxe Middle School—a school resource officer or “SRO” already is in place at New Canaan High School, and the principal there spoke of that individual’s importance, as well as Milton’s.
“Our relationship with Ed Milton and Kids In Crisis is a very significant one, as is our relationship with police and our SRO, who is instrumental,” Dr. Bryan Luizzi said. “I cannot say enough positive things about the success of the program here, because that really is key, that connection with the school and police on behalf of our kids. It’s really important.”
Officials at Kids In Crisis emphasize the importance of not only guarding kids in school but also developing relationships with them, specifically with a mental health professional.
For Denise Qualey, managing director of crisis and clinical services at the organization, part of what makes Milton effective is that he isn’t a school employee—so, for example, he’s not sitting in on parent-teacher conferences or writing college recommendations.
“I think it gives kids and parents a little bit more of a comfort level of confidentiality, in a different way,” Qualey said. “He’s there, not to be all ‘appointmented-up’ and scheduled. He’s there to be free and available any time of the day.” (Kids In Crisis also includes a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week hotline so that the organization is always reachable.)
Luizzi said the high school also includes eight guidance counselors, two school psychologists, nurses and the equivalent of 1.5 social workers, in addition to Milton. They make up what the principal calls the high school’s “mental health team”—and again, it’s plugged into a network that reaches far beyond the Farm Road campus.
“Because we have 1,300 teenagers who come to school every day, we are plugged into the different community agencies and services—both for us to utilize and for referrals for parents when they need help for someone to work with them,” Luizzi said.
‘We Have Direct Instruction in Our High School’
By the time New Canaan kids get to the high school, they’ve already undergone a comprehensive health education program that includes components of prevention.
Health education is taught in kindergarten through fourth grade as an integrated approach in physical education. At Saxe Middle School, each student gets about 12 to 15 health education classes per year, officials say. In grade 9, students undergo a 36-class program, and then for the rest of high school they get 18 sessions of health education per year.
New Canaan Public Schools Director of Athletics Jay Egan, who also serves as wellness curriculum coordinator for K-12.
“We have direct instruction in our high school curriculum about opioid-based drugs and this was to do with legal and illegal opioid-based drugs, and we talk about the different forms of addiction—psychological and physical addiction, brain chemistry,” Egan said.
Heroin is addressed specifically as part of that curriculum, including its negative health effects, reasons why it’s addictive and how people become addicted to the high, he said.
“Although we teach broadly about addictions and negative health effects, in this case, we understand that in the general population in the United States, that heroin is a drug of choice for this population—the purity factor of it, fact that it has some correlation with people who abuse certain prescription opioids,” Egan said.
So, as part of prevention education, students are made aware of what factors in their lives affect their own behaviors—places where they get positive or negative messages, say, music or some other part of popular culture—and they explore how those things shape the way they think.
While that instruction is going on, teachers in health education and everything else serve as frontline observers of classroom behavior and identify changes in students that are of concern, Egan said.
“Many times it’s personal—divorce or an illness at home,” he said. “But it also could be a drug dependency, so teachers are really clued into this, based on the fact that students are evaluated on a daily basis.”
Some federal and state efforts to stem the prescription drug abuse epidemic touch New Canaan. They include the April 26 National Take-Back Initiative Day, a Drug Enforcement Administration-run program where residents will be provided a convenient way to dispose of medication. New Canaan already has a drug drop-off box in the lobby at New Canaan Police headquarters on South Avenue (see the section “Medication Disposal Program” on this page.)
“It is a safety measure. It will save lives,” said Dr. Eric D. Collins, physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital, the psychiatric facility that’s based in New Canaan, and an associate clinical professor at Columbia University.
While U.S. senators from Connecticut push for resources to combat heroin, state legislators including New Canaan’s Tom O’Dea (R—125th) are seeking to pass a bill that would protect those who are able to administer life-saving drugs during a heroin overdose, by freeing them from risk of a lawsuit.
O’Dea himself co-sponsored a bill (text here) whose purpose, the proposed legislation says, is “to reduce opioid-related drug overdoses by allowing persons to administer opioid antagonists in certain situations.”
Collins said officials also are considering legislation that would make the life-saving drug, Narcan or Naloxone, more readily available, without a doctor’s prescription.
“And it used to be an injection, now there’s a nasal spray that allows it to be administered to someone even who is unconscious and not breathing. These are things we can reduce the overdose death risk,” Collins said.
Additionally, Connecticut is one of many states that has launched a prescription drug monitoring program. That program doesn’t deal with heroin directly (nobody prescribes heroin, since it’s illegal), but it does address the issue when a patient asks for a controlled substance, where a doctor can look up what other controlled substances they’re already receiving.
“It will mitigate the ‘doctor-shopping’ issue,” Collins said.
Collins emphasized that addiction to heroin and opioid painkillers are treatable.
“It’s chronic, it tends to remit and relapse, at least for a while in most people, but it’s treatable,” he said.
And the path treatment often starts with a parent, friend, caregiver or other loved one educating himself or herself.
“Parents need practical ways to educate themselves and practical tools that they can implement right in their homes,” Brown said.
“There is a lot that parents can do about this. They should not feel like their hands are tied. And not addressing it doesn’t make it go away.”