By Grace Wilson, Program Coordinator – October 28, 2020-

The conversation around marijuana is a hot topic in our society these days.  Most folks seem to choose one side or the other and not many fall in the middle.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the United States with 36.7 million users (youth and adult) in 2018. This number is alarming because not everyone is aware of the physical and mental health risks, especially for our youth.

In a 2014 study, it was reported by Lancet Psychiatry that teens who smoke marijuana daily are 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school or college than those who never use. They were also seven times more likely to attempt suicide.

A human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. When marijuana use is started at an early age, there will be damaging effects to the long term cognitive abilities of that individual.

Marijuana has many damaging effects on the brain. It can affect the parts of your brain responsible for memory, learning, decision making, emotions, reaction times, and attention. These effects could look different in each person. Different factors can come into play, including the potency of the marijuana, how often it is used, if other substances were used along with it, and at what age the individual began using marijuana.

Many people believe marijuana use can calm anxiety and relax an individual, but frequent and heavy use can actually bring on more feelings of anxiety or paranoia.

What are some of the other risks of using marijuana? First, marijuana is addictive. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. That number rises to 1 in 6 if they began using before the age of 18.

Some signs of addiction can include unsuccessful efforts to quit using, giving up activities with friends or family because of marijuana, and continuing to use even though it has caused problems with work, school, and home.

Marijuana also elevates the heart rate, causing it to work even harder. This is especially the case if other substances are used along with marijuana. It can also cause respiratory problems, including chronic cough. While marijuana use has not been found as a direct link to cancer, many marijuana smokers also use cigarettes, which do cause cancer.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 71 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana use as being harmful, but 64.7 percent say they disapprove of regular marijuana use. Now is the time to start the conversation with your child around marijuana.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  1. Do your research on the topic and know how marijuana will affect your child’s health.
  2. Find a comfortable setting to have the conversation.
  3. Keep an open mind. Your child will be less receptive if they feel judged.
  4. Stay positive and don’t use scare tactics, as they are counter-productive.
  5. Don’t lecture; keep the conversation flowing freely between the two of you.

Stay involved in your children’s lives by keeping the conversation open, and let them know they can come to you without fear or judgment. This can make a world of difference when having a discussion with them about marijuana.

This column is written by Grace Wilson, Program Coordinator for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 64 Master’s level social workers to 90 schools in 11 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year have access to Youth First’s school social work and afterschool programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.

By Salita Brown -October 22, 2020-

Addiction… overdose… death… serious consequences that have become synonymous with opioid use.

Opioids are very powerful drugs that have received significant media attention in the past years. However, through all of the coverage the reason opioids have become so addictive has gotten lost.

So, what exactly is an opioid?  Why are people addicted to them?  According to the Mayo Clinic website, mayoclinic.org, an opioid is a broad group of pain-relieving drugs that work by interacting with the opioid receptors in your brain cells, meaning an opioid can temporarily control your brain.

Opioids trigger the brain to release a signal that lessons your perception of pain and increases your feeling of pleasure. This feeling of pleasure, though temporary, has led to repeated overdoses. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) currently reports 128 Americans die every day from opioid-related overdoses.

This crisis is one that everyone can help combat, even if you think it does not affect you directly. One of the easiest methods to prevent addiction is proper disposal of unused medications.  All unused/expired medications become quite dangerous when found by the wrong person. This is especially dangerous when medications find their way into the hands of a child.

In order to help prevent this issue it’s best to get these medications out of your home. You might think you need to go to your medicine cabinet and flush those unused pills down the toilet or maybe throw them directly into the trash. You are not entirely wrong, but both of those disposal methods require a couple more steps to be safe and effective.

So, what exactly is the proper means for disposing of your expired or unused prescriptions? One option is to bring the unwanted medications to an authorized collector.  An authorized collector will simply take the medications, with no questions asked, and properly dispose of them for you. To find an authorized collector near you, please call the DEA Office of Diversion Control at 1-800-882-9539.

Another option is to flush your unused medications down the toilet. Before you rush to flush all of your medications, please be advised that not all medicines are recommended for flushing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of medicines approved for flushing that can be found by checking their website at www.fda.gov. If your medication is not on the approved list, it can be taken to an authorized collector or properly disposed in the trash.

By Diane Braun- October 15, 2020-

Red Ribbon Week is the oldest and largest drug prevention program in the nation, reaching millions of young people each year.  This year’s event will take place October 23-31.

According to the Red Ribbon Week website, this event is an ideal way for people and communities to unite and take a visible stand against drugs. 

Red Ribbon Week was started when drug traffickers in Mexico City murdered DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985. This began the continuing tradition of displaying red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward the use of drugs. The mission of the Red Ribbon Campaign is to present a unified and visible commitment towards the creation of a Drug-Free America.

National Family Partnership is the sponsor of this annual celebration. They are helping citizens across the country come together to keep children, families and communities safe, healthy and drug-free, through parent training, networking, and sponsoring events.

With over thirty annual events having taken place, you might ask, “Is Red Ribbon Week effective?”  According to Peggy Sapp, President of National Family Partnership, consider the following:

  • Red Ribbon Week is an environmental strategy, which means it doesn’t just affect a small group but usually goes beyond schools, churches and other groups into the broader community.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be an awareness campaign that gets information to the general public about the dangers of drug use.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to get people talking to other people and working on activities that will help rebuild a sense of community and common purpose.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to help parents and schools deliver an effective drug prevention curriculum.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to create critical mass, which is necessary to reduce destructive social norms/behaviors and promote positive social norms/behaviors.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be positive and fun, two things necessary to maintain good mental health.

Schools can benefit from curriculum available on the official Red Ribbon Week website, www.redribbon.org.  Incorporating substance use prevention education into daily classes such as health is an ideal way to bring awareness to students and promote prevention.

Parents should also access the website for great ideas about talking to children of any age about the dangers of substance use. Children of parents who talk to their teens regularly about drugs are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those who don’t; however, only 25 percent of teens report having these conversations.

Alcohol and other forms of drug abuse in this country have reached epidemic stages, and it is imperative that visible, unified prevention education efforts by community members be launched to eliminate the demand for drugs.

Please join Youth First this week as we promote the importance of prevention and educating our children, families and communities about the dangers of substance use.

By Abby Betz, LSW- October 7, 2020-

During difficult times in our lives, specifically a global pandemic, we can easily become overwhelmed with simply trying to take care of ourselves. With multitudes of websites and books on self-care and countless “how-to” guides, it can be tough to decide what works best.

The purpose of practicing self-care is to find the best method to manage our mental well-being in a constructive way without adding more stress to our already busy lives. In a time when we are asked to limit contact with others as much as possible, we need to step back and revisit the basics so we can best care for ourselves and our loved ones.  

As a school social worker, my job is to help students learn positive coping skills to manage their feelings. Simply put, coping skills are what we think and do to help get us through difficult situations.

There are several coping skills that anyone can learn in order to overcome stress, anxiety, and depression. The key is to not overthink it, which just adds more unwarranted stress!

Counting to 10 is a great coping skill for anxiety and anger. It gives you time to calm down before responding to a stressful situation. During this time when you are slowing your thought process, you can decide to make better choices.

Taking three deep breaths is similar to counting to 10, as it is also a great skill to use when battling anxiety. The key is to take slow, deep, breaths and focus on breathing IN through your nose and OUT through your mouth. You can repeat this exercise until you have returned to a resting, calm state.

Finding a positive distraction is also a good way to help alleviate stress. Squeezing a stress ball can help relieve tension as well as improve concentration and focus.

Coloring and drawing are other constructive distractions that enable you to use creativity to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Any type of artistic activity is a wonderful way to cope with stress because it lets you be creative and anyone can do it – no matter your skill level.

Taking care of your body is also extremely important and can be as simple as drinking plenty of water. Eating healthy and being active are also vital components to our emotional and physical well-being and can help decrease stress. An example I like to use with my students to show the importance of eating a healthy meal is to imagine they are a car and breakfast is the fuel for the car. If students don’t have enough fuel for their morning classes, they could run out before lunch and will lose focus and motivation.

Another great way of promoting positive thinking is to imagine a happy place or think about your favorite memory. It may be at the beach, at your grandma’s house baking cookies, or at school playing with friends. Thinking positive thoughts can replace negative thoughts, which makes this coping skill a great tool to have. 

At the end of the day, if things just seem too overwhelming – ask for help.  Reaching out to loved ones or someone we trust is an important coping skill that all of us should use. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; in fact, asking for help is a powerful sign of strength and self-awareness.

If you or someone you know is in need of help – please do not be afraid to reach out.  Youth First is here for you! We will get through this difficult time together.

By Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW -October 1, 2020-

This time last year, no one dreamed 2020 would bring a worldwide pandemic. We were forced to adjust very quickly to quarantines, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, travel restrictions, working remotely and masks. Who knew a year ago we would be using terms like “social distancing” and “face masks” in our everyday conversations?

Anxiety, depression, and suicide have all been on the rise. Unemployment and economic numbers are worse than during the Great Depression. Everyone is on edge. 

As adults the coronavirus pandemic is scary enough, but what if we are also parents? How do we take care of ourselves while also providing comfort and stability to our children? 

As a parent of two young children myself, working from home at the start of the pandemic was a challenge. Parents have always struggled with work/home life balance, but stay-at-home orders and working remotely were something new. We also had the challenge of not only being a parent but also our child’s teacher.  I think all of us now have a greater appreciation for teachers and the work they do. 

Stay-at-home orders have ended, and many of us are gradually returning to work and school. As we adjust to a new normal, however, many parents are struggling to find time for their own self-care.

Self-care is the practice of intentionally taking care of your own needs. Self-care is important for everyone, especially parents and caregivers. Some may find that certain activities they used to enjoy as part of their own self-care, such as going to the gym, vacationing, going to the movies, and eating out may be more difficult with COVID-19 restrictions or closures. 

Here are some practical self-care ideas for parents:

  1. Avoid overexposure to the news. I personally found that when I was watching the national news I was more anxious and worried. Spend time watching television that is enjoyable and gives you an escape from reality for a bit.   
     
  2. Spend quiet time alone. It could be on your commute to work or after your children go to bed. It’s important to have time to process the day and enjoy calm.
  3. Spend time enjoying hobbies. Some pandemic-friendly ideas include listening to podcasts, reading, going for a drive, or talking to friends or family on the phone. I’ve recently discovered audio books and love being able to “read” while driving to work or taking a walk outside.
     
  4. Exercise.  Maybe you still feel uncomfortable going to the gym, but fall is a beautiful time for the family to enjoy outdoor walks. Exercise is also a natural stress reliever. 
  5. Practice mindfulness or meditation. There are several apps you can download for free mindfulness exercise, such as CALM, Stop Breathe and Think, and Headspace. Some of the apps have both a free and paid version with additional content. Research links meditation to increased levels of happiness.
     
  6. Find a babysitter for the night and enjoy some time with friends or your significant other. It is important to have adult time away from your children. 
  7. Spend time planning upcoming experiences. Dr. Laura Santo from Yale University’s work on the secret of happiness has found that spending money on experiences is linked to increased levels of happiness versus spending money on material possessions. For many, this could be planning a trip. I was reading in a travel magazine that the act of planning a vacation can actually lead to more happiness than the vacation itself. If you had a trip cancelled this year, plan for something exciting in 2021. You don’t necessarily have to leave town; you could plan a local experience such as a trip to the zoo or a walk by the river.
     
  8. Enjoy time together as a family. Have a game night or order carry-out and have a backyard picnic.   
     
  9. Socialize. I think one of the tragedies of COVID-19 is the loss of human connection.  Isolation can lead to depression. People have been told to stay away from others and maintain distance, but this does not mean we have to isolate. Plan to FaceTime a friend or have an outdoor get-together with chairs spaced 6 feet apart.
     
  10. Order carry-out food (or dine in if you feel comfortable) and support a local business.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, be sure to make self-care a priority during the pandemic. Taking care of yourself ensures that you will be able to give your best when taking care of others. 

By Jenna Kruse, LSW – September 23, 2020 –

Being a parent of a teenager is difficult enough without adding the stress of navigating a pandemic. After being stuck at home for several months, most teens are ready to stay in school, see their friends, and return to any sense of normalcy.

As guidelines continue to change, here are ways you can safely support your teen during these trying times.

It’s safe to say that teen and adult worries are very different. “I’d look stupid in a mask” and “I need to see my friends” might not be thoughts that cross your mind as an adult, but understand these concerns are vital pieces of a teen’s social development.

It is important to remind yourself that your teen is living in a socially distant society as they are attempting to establish their own identity and independence. Have a clear list of your expectations instead of reciting government-issued mandates that they may not understand and are likely to ignore.

Empathize and validate your teen’s worry and anger. Teenagers are likely to feel the weight heavily; it feels unfair that the pandemic has happened, that it is still happening, and that life cannot yet return to normal.

By validating your teenager’s feelings, you grant them the opportunity to be open and expressive with their feelings. Try phrases such as, “You are right, this is unfair” or “I feel that too, but it’s important that we do what we can to keep others safe.” Validating a teenager’s feelings will make them more accepting of whatever you say next.

Your teen may feel frustrated that they have new restrictions placed on them when they have not been directly affected by this virus. Help teens make the connection by outlining the increased danger for older family and friends. This helps students understand that your fears aren’t far-fetched, and that what we do now makes a big difference down the road. You may also use the mask mandate and current restrictions as a way to teach compassion and the importance of keeping ourselves safe so we can keep others safe.

If your student is going out with friends, incentivize them to comply with safety measures. Let them know if they are willing to take safety precautions seriously, they will have more freedom to spend time with friends.

Make safety fun by practicing what talking to a friend from 6 feet apart looks like. Allow them to pick out a cool mask in which they can express themselves, and sit down with your teen to create a list of outdoor places where they could safely spend time with friends. Remind your student that your family rules may be different than their friends’ rules, but they are still the rules they must follow.

During these trying times, it is important to remind your teen (and yourself) that even though we are in the middle of a difficult time, this pandemic, like other difficult times, will pass. Work as a team and keep communication open, factual, and honest with your student. Remember, what we do now will determine what will happen next.

By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – September 16, 2020 –

Hi. Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Oi.

Each one of these greetings, along with many others, is the gateway for social interaction. Social interaction with others helps create a culture of inclusion and acceptance.

According to Ferris State University, inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is recognized. 

Why is inclusion important in our schools and communities?

Heartland Community College has created the HEIP (Heartland Equity and Inclusion Project), which identified the following reasons that inclusion is important:

  1. Inclusion molds the values of the next generation of children.
    • Students see a person first and the person’s disability second.
    • Students learn to practice empathy and appreciate the value of diversity.
  2. Inclusion provides opportunities for friendships.
    • The development of friendships requires close proximity and a common experience. Keeping children together encourages both objectives.
    • Students develop a comfortable way to interact with students with disabilities.
    • Children with disabilities attend the same school as their neighborhood friends.
  3. Inclusion prepares individuals for adult life in the community.
    • Today’s classmates are tomorrow’s employers and co-workers.
    • Community life includes people of all abilities.
  4. Inclusion helps create family-like social structures outside of the home.
    • Siblings can be educated together at the same school.
    • Parents are not stretched between two or more school settings.
  5. Inclusion cultivates an enriched learning environment.
    • Additional resources (therapists, special educators, etc.) in the classroom benefit all children.
    • Diversified teaching strategies and the common use of modifications and adaptations ensure everyone can be part of the learning process.
    • Children with disabilities learn from typically developing peers who can act as role models, making them more likely to develop appropriate social and communication skills.

What is the opposite of inclusion and why is it important? Social isolation is a feeling or sense of not belonging. It is overwhelming and in many cases debilitating to a person’s functioning. When feeling isolated from others, loneliness and invisibility can consume a person’s thoughts and behaviors, causing a significant increase in self-harm or harm of others.

To decrease the negative impacts of social isolation, the Sandy Hook Promise has created a campaign to increase social interaction and inclusion among students. This campaign began after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December of 2012. Each fall, schools around the world are asked to participate in the campaign called “Start With Hello” Week. The scheduled date for this year’s “Start With Hello Week is September 21-25, 2020.

Start With Hello Week raises awareness about social isolation and educates students and the community on how to prevent it through various trainings, awareness, activities, public proclamations, media events, student contests and school awards – all provided by the Sandy Hook Promise campaign. You can find the “Start With Hello Week planning guide along with the registration submission for your school or agency to participate in this event at https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/startwithhelloweek.

Let’s all join together in this movement to show our children that everyone should be valued, to bring awareness to social isolation, and to increase empathy and inclusion all around! Just remember, it can be as simple as starting with “hello.”

Support Youth First by purchasing half pot raffle tickets now! Winner will be drawn on September 30, 2020. Raffle tickets can be purchased from Youth First staff and board members, at the Youth First office Monday through Friday 8am to 12pm, or by filling out the contact form here.

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, LCSW -September 3, 2020-

As students start school after being out for a long layoff, they may need a “brush-up” on their organizational skills. Organizational skills are important in every phase of life, whether we are professionals in the work force, parents, teenagers or children. 

It is never too late to evaluate how your child is doing in mastering this skill and to help them develop the necessary strategies to be successful.  I firmly believe we all have good intentions. I haven’t met a student yet who wants to fail or forget to turn in their homework. Just like with adults, good intentions may not always yield good results.    

Parents can start with children as young as 2 or 3 years old.  Developing organizational skills is much like learning to ride a bike. We don’t just sit our children on the seat of a bike and let them go.  We hold the seat of their bike until they seem sturdy.  Even then, we don’t leave them to fall.  We often run beside them to catch them if they aren’t steady. 

The same strategy should be used in teaching our children organization.  In the beginning of the process a parent should be very involved.  As they are ready for more independence, children can be given more responsibility and the parent can be more of a monitor. 

The academic setting is the perfect place to begin teaching these life skills that can be carried over throughout our lifetime. A key component is allowing your child to develop an organizational system that makes sense to them.  What makes the most sense to you may not be what makes sense to your child.  Therefore, allow your child to have the ownership as you guide them by gently pointing out suggestions and potential pitfalls of their plan. 

Here are some tips to help begin teaching organizational skills:

  1. Begin with consistency at home. Having a set study time after school will provide a consistent routine that promotes good time management.
  2. Aid your child in organizing their backpack and binder to provide a system that prevents papers from being shoved into books, etc. 
  3. Strongly support your child using their agenda. Developing the habit of writing down assignments/tests in the agenda as soon as assigned in class will set them up for success.  This habit of using the agenda appropriately will set your child up for independent success in the academic years to follow.  This task is often overlooked by students as they get busy or distracted and forget to write things down. This step is extremely important, so you may consider a reward system that supports creating the habit in the initial phase of developing this strategy.
  4. Create a to-do list and break down big projects into smaller tasks. In a different color ink, fill in extra-curricular plans to help your child plan in advance for evenings that may not allow enough time to accomplish all necessary tasks. 

As Donna Goldberg from the NYU Child Study Center emphasizes the importance of these skills, she clarifies the need for students with special needs in particular. Children with attention difficulties often miss details and find organization difficult. Those with executive functioning issues often have trouble with prioritizing and sequencing.  Children with auditory processing difficulties often don’t take in everything that is being taught. 

Recognizing your child’s individual needs and teaching them how to compensate with organizational skills will be a lesson leading to success for a lifetime.

By Jessie Smith, MSW – September 2, 2020 –

Do you have a child who has just started kindergarten? Along with parents/guardians experiencing a range of emotions during this time, so do incoming students. Throughout my time working in an elementary school, I have had the privilege to observe this transition and guide students through this exciting time in their lives.

While a brand new classroom and making new friends can be exciting for a kindergartener, with these excitements come routines, workload, and rules. Expectations placed on students can be daunting and confusing at times. In the first few weeks of school, there are a few tips parents can utilize to help better transition their kindergartner.

  1. Routine. Try to create a routine that includes both a bedtime and a wakeup time. Many professionals stress the importance of scheduled sleep routines for kindergarten-aged children. Having a consistent wakeup time can help children adjust to beginning their day earlier than they may have in the past. Creating charts can be a useful visual and an interactive reference to aid families when trying to maintain a schedule with their child. Morning charts can include activities like getting dressed, eating breakfast, and brushing teeth. Afternoon charts can reflect tasks to complete such as eating a snack, completing certain chores, or working on homework.

  2. Expectations. A major part of being a student is learning to follow regulations and classroom rules. This aspect of schooling can be particularly difficult for incoming kindergartners. For some students, this may be the first time they must ask to use the restroom, walk in a line, or be required to remain quiet during appropriate times. Introducing standard “school rules” at home can help your child meet teacher expectations as well as reduce student stress. Practice rules like raising hands, staying in a designated seat, and keeping hands/feet to self. Obviously you can’t always implement these rules in your home life, but having conversations about these expectations and engaging in role playing can strengthen your child’s ability to adapt to similar rules in the classroom.

  3. Exploring Emotions. Along with getting used to new routines and regulations, your child may experience new emotions that they need time to process. Talk with your child. Ask what part of their day made them the happiest. Were there any times they felt upset or overwhelmed? Helping children identify their emotions can also promote conversations that can help you monitor and regulate the feelings your child is experiencing.

  4. Discipline. All of these new changes can be overwhelming for little brains. It’s important to remember that your child is learning. I speak to many parents who are concerned because they have received a note or a phone call from an educator to address a concern about their child’s progress or behavior. When this occurs, it is often because teachers are trying to be proactive and communicate with parents to eliminate more issues in the future. It is a good idea to collaborate and set expectations in the home that are the same as expectations in the classroom. Keep in mind how different their day-to-day environment has become while they try to familiarize their surroundings and find their place in the classroom.  

The start of kindergarten for your child is a bittersweet moment in a parent’s life and Youth First is here to help with any questions you might have. Please reach out to your school’s Youth First Social Worker or communicate with your teacher if you need assistance navigating the transition. It really is a team effort.