Counsellors offer teens honest talk about drugs

Frying eggs in skillets and proclaiming the brain sizzles while smoking drugs never convinced a kid not to smoke a joint.

Frying eggs in skillets and proclaiming the brain sizzles while smoking drugs never convinced a kid not to smoke a joint.

So with school back in session, addiction counsellors are back in Whitehorse high schools, trying to help teens navigate the party circuit and its allure of alcohol and drugs by offering simple, honest and accurate information.

“You can’t lie to teens about drugs,” said Dale Gordon, supervisor of treatment and standards at alcohol and drug services in Whitehorse.

“If you start using sensational language teenagers know the difference. If you think you’re going to scare them into not using drugs, you’re wrong.”

Two addiction counsellors funded by alcohol and drug services will be in four high schools and two specialty institutions on a regular basis.

Vanier, Porter Creek, École Émilie-Tremblay and F.H. Collins all will have the counsellors on call, and students at the Individual Learning Centre and Riverfront School will also have access to them.

The addiction counsellors have been in high schools since 1999.

“Basically, we go into the school and provide services — presentations in class, and counseling information for teachers and parents, not just for the kids,” said Madeleine Piuze, one of the two addiction counsellors.

A counsellor’s job is to be accessible in the schools, but also be available to meet teens or their families at the Sarah Steele building if they wish to remain more anonymous, she said.

During those talks, councilors focus on prevention, harm and risk reduction and methods for safer partying.

“When you go talk, it’s not to make them feel bad,” Piuze said.

“I inform them about the facts. It can be hard, but when you listen, they are curious and then it’s not that hard to talk to them.”

Piuze is also making presentations to classes at the request of teachers.

Ramping up tales of the dangers to scare kids away from drugs — the response drugs used to get from educators — often does more harm than good, Gordon said.

“The information has to be correct, because if you give misinformation you lose credibility.”

Counselors and parents have to be careful they don’t invent symptoms or side effects to scare kids away from drugs, he added.

It can easily happen.

During the 1960s, Canadian kids were sniffing glue and dying from it, Gordon explained.

The official message that went out was that the glue was killing children.

But the truth was that the teens were using plastic bags to sniff the glue and dying from suffocation.

Good intentions aside, misinformation, “in itself has potential to create problems,” Gordon said.

If a teen asks about a drug, they should be able to receive accurate information about it, he said.

For example, while many whisper about crystal meth on the streets of Whitehorse, Gordon and Piuze have never heard from teens here who have tried it.

But teens do try ecstasy on occasion, which has been found laced with crystal meth by the RCMP, “enough times we know it’s a danger,” Gordon said.

To help teens understand the true risks of ecstasy, they should know that it could be laced with meth, noted both Piuze and Gordon.

Despite parental fears, not every kid who tries drugs will become addicted.

Studies show almost every teen will try alcohol, and a large percentage will try marijuana, said Gordon.

Behaviour that appears reckless from the outside is often quite innocent in reality.

“They’re not worried about an addiction,” Gordon explained of the hedonistic, binge drug use most teenagers exhibit.

“You’re treating a group of people who haven’t experienced the consequences of addiction.”

Those who do become addicted to drugs in their early teen years are most often becoming hooked on drinking alcohol or smoking pot, said Gordon.

And in many cases young people who are heavy users of drugs are not, clinically speaking, addicts.

“They’re just partying, but they’re also in the beginning stages of addiction,” said Gordon.

Teen brains are still developing, as are their social skills.

While the negative effects of a budding addiction to alcohol, for example, won’t show up when a 12-year-old begins drinking, by age 16, big consequences like lost licences and a lack of social skills could already be occurring, said both Piuze and Gordon.

They want to steer a troubled teen down a different path.

The work is difficult, as drug use is most often merely a “symptom” of bigger problems with teens and their families, said Gordon.

“We see it a lot; the drug is just a way to try to cope with anxiety, stress, problems,” he said.

Children raised in environments where they aren’t loved and allowed to develop a sense of self, often turn to drugs, he added.

“Drugs work very well and instantly for that type of pain.”

Identifying what drives a person to drugs is a major part of treating an addiction, added Piuze, who is from Quebec City.

She didn’t choose to help teens with drugs and addictions issues.

Instead, it chose her, she said.

 “I really found it to be a passion.

“It’s very complex, but I think to work in prevention is a good way to give youth an opportunity to have a different way to see things.”

Youth work on addictions is incredibly hard, Gordon added.

“Often you don’t get to see the fruits of your labour.

“Sometimes your work doesn’t come out until years later.”