Short FeaturesHelp for the Front Lines
New Futures tackles substance abuse
By Rachel M. Collins '81
During high school, Amy spent her weekends—and then many weekdays—smoking pot and downing one cheap beer after another. She routinely rode with others who were driving drunk. And, after a year of skipping classes, she dropped out of school altogether.
"Easily 85 percent of the kids at my school drank or did pot," says the now 22-year-old who lives in central New Hampshire and asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy. "My mom absolutely thought I was insane. But I did not know kids who didn't drink."
To Amy and her friends in her northern rural hometown, this lifestyle was just fine. "I never once thought what we were doing was not OK," she says. "I was having this great time and I thought I had the perfect life."
Amy is not an anomaly in New Hampshire. More than one out of every two high school students surveyed in 1997 said they had drank alcohol in the past month and one in three reported binge drinking on at least one occasion. And, of the 33 states polled, New Hampshire had the second highest use of pot and inhalants by high school students.
For a state that values its quality of life, these startling numbers have not been pleasant to face. But substance abuse is not just a problem in urban areas: it's an issue in New Hampshire as well, a state that ranks consistently near the bottom in the U.S. when it comes to per capita spending on alcohol and drug treatment.
Certainly, then, many in public health and the correctional system breathed a collective sigh of relief last year when New Futures was established, funded with an anonymous $9 million donation given to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation expressly to deal with the state's growing problem.
"It was like manna from heaven," recalls Joseph Diament, chief executive officer of Odyssey House Inc., which operates six substance abuse treatment programs. "In its very brief life, New Futures has had a fantastic impact by placing substance abuse on the front burner. It's gotten people to talk together who haven't ever talked together."
That's because one of Dr. John Bunker's first missions when he was named executive director of New Futures was to travel around the state interviewing 400 frontline workers in government, corrections, treatment programs and non-profit organizations. What's needed, he found, is a facilitator to serve as a resource—an easy fit for New Futures, based at UNH's Huddleston Hall, where it has access to professors with expertise in related disciplines.
Taking up its role as a resource, New Futures has already published a report outlining the scope of the state's problems, and has also established a Web site, http://www.new-futures.org, which links users to national resources. And it is paving the way for policy change through its community leadership program headed by director Linda King '68. Last August, the four-year program began recruiting the first 100 of 400 leaders—ranging from legislators to recovering addicts—who will act as local resources and a statewide advocacy group.
"New Futures is going to mature into an incredibly important program not only for UNH but for the state," says Dennis Meadows, director of UNH's Institute for Policy and Social Science Research. "It is bringing nationally prominent talent and a lot of money to bear on the issue." Housing the program at UNH also provides the added benefit of helping the school tackle its own substance abuse problems. "Every part of our society has problems with drugs, and UNH has some, too," Meadows says.
In fact, the first focus of New Futures will be alcohol problems among young people. "When we asked people what the major issues were, consistently that's what they came up with," Bunker says.
Amy is a prime example. Three months pregnant in 1996, she was arrested after a drunk-driving accident. She chose nine months in a residential treatment program, instead of a year in jail.
Now she is raising her 2-year-old son, working at a part-time job and—having received her high school equivalency—is considering college. "I think drinking and partying is the real big social thing in these towns," she says. "But it's not the right thing." That's a message New Futures will attempt to communicate before the damage caused by alcohol and drug abuse becomes overwhelming.Education, Not Sermons
UNH senior Catherine Allard spends much of her spare time talking about alcohol. A peer educator with UNH Health Services, she says, "It's not really our philosophy to preach about drinking. It's to educate students about their choices concerning alcohol.
"Most students don't know what their body is saying when they black out or throw up," says Allard. "When I tell them it means, 'Your brain is so depressed that it shuts down, and you're really close to death,' they realize how scary it is."
Abuse of alcohol pervades college campuses, with students from New Hampshire schools showing some of the highest consumption rates in the nation. Eighty-five percent of UNH students surveyed in 1997 reported drinking alcohol in the previous month, for example, and 58 percent admitted to recent "binge drinking," defined as five or more drinks for men, four or more for women.
Peer education programs are part of UNH's plan to address alcohol abuse by its students. The University also offers counseling on- and off-campus and a wide range of educational outreach programs at dormitories, fraternities, sororities and academic buildings, according to Kathleen Grace-Bishop, associate director of UNH Health Services.
In addition, UNH has recently pushed to provide more alternatives to the drinking scene. The Memorial Union Building will stay open late on weekends for special student events, and activities aimed at first-year students have been extended beyond September to include weekends year-round. Many more non-alcoholic events and programs are available, and students can choose to live in substance-free housing on campus.
Yet in spite of well-intentioned programs and policies, the abuse persists—at UNH and elsewhere. Campus officials contend that many students arrive on campus with already established drinking habits. And it's harder to change attitudes within a larger culture which accepts, and even glamorizes, the use of alcohol. As UNH Vice President of Student Affairs Leila Moore says, "The problem extends beyond the campus walls."
The issue has become a top agenda item for the presidents of New Hampshire's four-year colleges and universities, who recently initated a collaborative effort to fight alcohol abuse on their campuses. Supported by funding from New Futures, the presidents plan to discuss the dangers of alcohol with students and parents, as well as meet with local communities to explore possible joint educational ventures.
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