The human brain is not fully developed until the early to mid-20s and that has an impact on how effective drug and alcohol prevention programs are with those kids, said Dionne Spooner, assistant professor of social work at Minot State University and Student Social Work Organization adviser.
That was the subject of a conference Wednesday that drew more than 200 students and professionals from the area who work or will work with troubled adolescents. Spooner said understanding the different developmental phases that the brain goes through can help experts target their efforts and make them more effective.
For instance, since many kids take drugs or alcohol to end negative emotions such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem or to relax inhibitions, experts should focus on building up self-esteem in kids before they hit adolescence. Higher self-esteem might serve as a protective buffer that might prevent them from abusing drugs and alcohol.
Spooner said that featured speaker Michael Nerney, a consultant in substance abuse prevention and education with more than 32 years of experience in the field, also recommended that experts stop bullying behavior immediately, as it occurs, to send a message to the bully that the behavior won't be tolerated and to the bullying victim that he will be protected.
Nerney is the former director of the Training Institute of Narcotic and Drug Research Inc. During that time, he received a federal grant under the Youth-At-Risk Act to design training programs for residential facilities within the New York State Division for Youth. Nerney's areas of expertise include psycho-pharmacology, adolescent chemical dependency, relapse prevention, gender differences in communication and managing violent incidents.
During the afternoon session, Nerney outlined some common drug mixtures and the street names for the drugs that are being used by adolescents today. It is easy for kids to obtain prescription drugs from the medicine cabinets of parents, grandparents or babysitting clients, he said, and drugs are also easy to obtain on the Internet as well as in every middle and high school.
Populations that adults might not expect would be abusing drugs are also using them. Nerney said college students most likely to abuse Ritalin and other drugs used for ADD and ADHD are work study students who are trying to find ways to get their school work done and work 20 hours a week and Ph.D students who are trying to find a way to do four years of work in three years.
Alcohol has a different effect on the brains of teens and young adults up to about age 22 than it does on older adults, said Nerney. In people up until the early 20s, alcohol excites the neural pathways and makes them energetic and in the mood to party. When combined with caffeinated drinks that help partying teens and college students stay awake long enough to drink longer, the combination can be dangerous. Young people fueled by alcohol are more likely to engage in risky and illegal behavior, including being a perpetrator or a victim of a sexual assault.
Nerney said binge drinking damages the brain of a young person and a college student who frequently binge drinks for two years at school may have 20 to 40 percent lower brain function. Luckily, the brain in a young adult is also flexible enough to recover from much of that damage, so if a kid gets into recovery before the early 20s, much of that damage will repair itself.
Nerney said one of the most frustrating things about working with college students on drugs is their sense of invincibility. The young adults seem to believe that their intellect will protect them from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol and can conquer the physical changes that are inevitable with addiction. They don't seem to believe that they are not invincible.
Continuing education credit was available to many of the professionals who took the seminar Wednesday.