According to a Columbia University study, 40 million Americans (or one in seven) age 12 and older struggle with addiction. That’s more than the number of individuals suffering from diabetes (26 million), heart conditions (27 million) and cancer (19 million).

Those numbers were just a fraction of what Mirror Inc. prevention coordinator Des Martens shared to illustrate the nature of the local drug problem for Harvey County community members present at a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Meridian Center.

Government and business leaders from around the county attended the meeting, as did several students from community schools who are involved in Mirror’s Youth as Resources program, with the goal of shedding light on the issue and discussing strategies to deal with the problem.

“When communities come together around issues, they can really make a difference,” Martens said. “We’re starting to get a strong message out there to young people because of the problems.”

Statistics indicate that drug problems start at a young age and Martens noted Mirror Inc. is working to put its “best foot forward” to help area youth, given what the numbers show.

Currently, trends of drug abuse in adolescents indicate a high use of prescription drugs and marijuana, and the numbers in Harvey County tend to be higher than the state averages.

The former has become the most abused substance among 12 to 15-year-olds. Between 4.77 to 7.92 percent of students in Harvey County have admitted to prescription drug abuse, one of the highest rates in the state.

Marijuana, however, remains the top reason adolescents are admitted to substance abuse centers in both the state and the country. According to a Communities That Care survey, 10 percent of all students polled in Harvey County admitted to using marijuana in the past 30 days (as opposed to a six percent average for the entire state). When the results of 12th grade students were isolated, that number jumped to 24 percent versus a 15 percent state average.

For USD 373 superintendent Deb Hamm, the issues of drug abuse in Newton schools are an even greater threat. She had heard about the problem before taking the position, but she said she had not seen the evidence in terms of expulsions or police reports.

About a year ago, as part of a listening tour, she met with an adamant group of teachers at the high school who reported NHS students were telling them that 75 percent of the student body was doing drugs. From a self-reported survey, 38 percent of the student body admitted to using marijuana at least once.

With the actual percentage of students abusing drugs somewhere between those two numbers, Hamm noted the results are still scary. Comparing some of the usages reported through that survey with state averages compounds the issue, as 21.58 percent of students at Newton admitted to smoking marijuana at least once in the past 30 days. The state average was 5.88 percent.

Prescription drug use, though less severe, raised similar red flags. According to the survey, 7.14 percent of NHS students admitted to using a prescription drug in the past 30 days as opposed to 3.75 percent of students statewide.

“I’m very concerned as a community member, as the superintendent and as the grandmother of three children in our schools,” Hamm said. “I think as a community we really need to be concerned about that.”

Community includes the students themselves, which is why Mirror Inc. has invested in the Youth as Resources (YAR) program. Protective factors and social development strategy can go a long way in prevention and buffering kids from risks, according to Martens, and members of YAR presented on what they are doing in their schools and communities to help in those efforts.

At Sedgwick High School, YAR student representative Samantha Cordell noted those ideas have been made LEGIT, as the Leaders Encouraging Good Intentions Together work to promote the ideals of the YAR program.

Making responsible decisions and encouraging peers to do the same, Cordell said, is the focus of LEGIT. Through strengthening leadership and increasing membership, the group has been able to continue that mission and its “Overtime” program is a good example.

Following each home football game, Cordell noted LEGIT hosts an alternative event that is both informative and fun (featuring different activities each time). In previous years, Cordell noted Overtime averaged an attendance of 40 to 50 students, but in 2016 that number has grown to 90 students.

“We are very proud of our school for making the right decisions,” Cordell said.

Representatives from Burrton, Hesston and Newton spoke to similar efforts to engage both their school and community in fun, safe ways to get informed about prevention. Newton is just starting its program, while Hesston High School was the first in the county to get involved with YAR and student representative Seth Heibert noted Mirror’s support has helped keep it going.

Children are the future, which necessitates the work to generate a bigger response towards drug abuse prevention, according to Mirror Inc. president Barth Hague, and he stated that discussion will not be ending any time soon.

“Our investment in them today,” Martens said, “is going to lead to a better tomorrow for all of us.”

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