Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summertime brings a spike in underage drinking

There's plenty to celebrate with the coming of summer. For kids, there's the extra free time to relax, go to the beach, spend more time with friends. There also tends to be a spike in underage drinking when school lets out.

According to the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), More teens start drinking  in June and July than in any other months. On an average day in June and July, more than 11,000 teens ages 12 to 17 use alcohol for the first time – December is the only other month with comparable levels. Throughout the rest of the year, the daily average for first-time alcohol use ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 adolescents.

The evidence is clear: more free time and less adult supervision increases the likelihood of exposure to the dangers of underage drinking.

Below are some tips to keep your kids safe this summer:
  • Approach your teenager with honest and direct communication. Learning how to express your concerns without making your teenager feel guarded is critical to effective dialogue. Let him/her know the dangers of underage drinking, which include behavioral changes and increased likelihood of vehicular accidents.
  • Keep your alcohol usage under control. Teenagers watch their parents for guidance so setting a negative example can make teenagers justify their own negative behavior.
  • Secure your personal supply of alcohol. Teenagers may be tempted to drink alcohol while you're away, so keeping it inaccessible can help prevent these dangerous situations.
  • Monitor your teenager's friends and whereabouts. Knowing who your teenager is hanging out with can alert you to possible problems. Avoid letting your teenager attend unsupervised parties. Follow up with other parents to ensure your child is being truthful about his friends and his social activities.
For more prevention tips and information on alcohol laws in Maine, visit:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Kay Stephens: Cyberbullying is not ‘sticks and stones.’ It’s psychological warfare

Previously run in the Penobscot Bay Pilot.

I’ve been following this Orono cyberbullying case very closely since it broke on the statewide scene. The Bangor Daily News reports: Teen cyberbully pleads guilty to terrorizing former Orono schoolmate. Every day, I receive stories all over the world like this: kids getting defamed, libeled, psychologically tortured by other kids through digital devices. This 16-year-old girl, Lexi Henkel, was incredibly brave to take her story public as her 17-year-old tormentor terrorized Lexi and her family to the point of vacating their home, moving schools and pushing Lexi to the brink of suicide.

So often, it seems as though adults aren’t truly waking up to the potential destruction of cyberbullying until a teenager is on the brink of suicide.

I’m not glad this happened; but I’m glad it became public. In Maine, I don’t think adults are fully comprehending how destructive cyberbullying can be. Since September, I’ve visited and spoken to parents and educators from at least 40 Maine schools to provide some perspective around the motivations behind certain types of cyberbullying and how to prevent it.  Most adults leave with a better understanding that there's not a “one-size-fits-all” solution; that each incident needs to be thoroughly understood before it can be strategically dealt with. But I’ve actually had a few teachers tell me: “We don’t have cyberbullying at our school.”

They are not seeing it, because they’re not part of the kids’ digital networks, but it’s there.  At its highest extreme, it becomes known to the principal and a news story. At its lowest to medium level, it’s being done covertly, through texting, email, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. But it’s there.
But let me go back to this Orono story for a moment, because worse than the “cyberbullying doesn’t exist” mindset is the “suck it up” mindset.

Take for example this anonymous poster “Hussar” who wrote a comment in response to this Orono story:
What ever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?" It appears that we are raising a generation of over emotional crybabies, scared of their own shadows, that need the nanny state to protect their feelings from being hurt. I am sorry, for Ms. Henkel's pubescence angst, but this is classic case of taking ourselves and perceived dangers to our children way too seriously.

He read the same story as everyone else. He saw that these weren’t some mild, adolescent outbursts. The posts threatened the girl’s life and safety. Here’s an example of a few of them:
 • “Ready for tomorrow night? I’d learn to sleep with your eyes open if I were you. I’m dulling my knife right now so when I stab you in the face, gut and legs it’ll be painful as possible.”
• “You know how all these environmental friendly groups say that waste should be properly disposed of? Well, come on Lexi, do the world a favor, and properly dispose of your [expletive deleted] self!”
• “Your face is like a baby seal. Fat, furry and just asking to be clubbed to death.”

Law 101: A "criminal threat" is when you threaten to kill or physically harm someone either in person or electronically. These are not “sticks and stones” comments. But unfortunately, I’ve seen this mindset appear in multiple comments to hundreds of cyberbullying stories I’ve read through.  It’s not about “protecting their feelings about being hurt” it’s about protecting vulnerable young people from being threatened, defamed, libeled and psychologically tortured—you know, the very types of behavior that will land an adult in court. Just because they’re minors doesn’t mean they don’t have the same legal rights and protections as adults.

Yet, in several Maine schools I’ve visited, students have come up to me after a presentation and told me in confidence that “adults don’t know how to deal with cyberbullying” and that “all this talk that they were going to stop it” has basically been seen as lip-service.
So what happens is: when influential people like “Hussar” reiterate this specious “suck it up” mindset; teens who are being badly cyberbullied feel completely unprotected. Like hunted animals, they feel they will never escape the torment, never find peace or a normal life again—and sometimes they look to the extreme choices.

As Lexi’s mother Judy Henkel wrote in response to “Hussar”:
Know your facts before you write an opinion such as you did. You haven't read the emails Lexi recieved, you haven't heard your daughter say that taking her own life would be easier then having to go through all this. Having your daughter tell you she is thinking of taking her life so it would all stop is just like having a knife plundged (sic) into your heart.

Thankfully, with the staunch support of Lexi’s parents, her community and the police, Lexi has been able to tell her story. I don’t know if she will ever feel safe again as she does her best to resume a normal life, but she has given voice to a deep-seated problem that hides in the very insular walls of social media and electronic communication that we adults don’t often get a chance to see. This is probably one of the biggest cyberbullying wake up calls Maine has seen. . and these kids need your protection.

Kay Stephens is the co-author of Cyberslammed: Understand, Prevent, Combat and Transform the Most Common Cyberbullying Tactics, published this year and sponsored by Time Warner Cable. She has been doing presentations to Maine schools on specific cyberbullying threats and how to understand, prevent, combat and transform them. She is also the editor of FTCTC's monthly teen-focused feature, Sound Off, designed to increase the number of youth who have one of the protective factors that helps keep kids out of trouble—recognition for pro-social involvement. To see more posts oncyberbullying, visit Kay Stephens on The Pen Bay Pilot.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Alcohol consumption and sexual assault

Our thanks to Michelle Harris, Outreach Advocate for Sexual Assault Support Services of Maine, for submitting the  following blog post. 

Research presented at the latest Five Town CTC Coalition meeting highlighted the fact that underage alcohol consumption is a major concern to our communities. It is important to bring to light some of the not so obvious and yet related risks to this data that may affect our children in dangerous and potentially long-lasting ways.
The issue of sexual assault and alcohol consumption may appear to be worlds apart, when in fact there is evidence that shows a relationship between the two. Some of these relationships may be obvious common sense, while others may be new and just as alarming. Extensive information on this relationship can be found at
Let’s look at the first possibility of an offender providing and encouraging alcohol consumption in an effort to reduce an intended target’s resistance and inhibitions. The influence of alcohol can impair the judgment of a person, who can then find him or herself in a dangerous situation, potentially being faced with a person who will not take no for an answer. Furthermore, if enough alcohol is consumed, a person may entirely lose the ability to give consent at all, which to an offender who has preplanned this event, is exactly the opportunity he or she was trying to create.
 A person may also use alcohol as a way to reduce his or her own inhibitions relating to respecting another person’s boundaries and right to say no. This can be used as a convenient excuse after things have gone too far, after a victim has said no, but whose wishes have gone unheard and are ignored.
There are emotional repercussions after a sexual assault, particularly one in which alcohol consumption was a factor. If a survivor had been drinking and was sexually assaulted, there can be feelings of guilt and self-blame, in spite of the fact that the person committing acts of sexual aggression is entirely responsible for his or her actions.
A person who has been drinking and was sexually assaulted can be apt to minimize the event, again taking on deep feelings of guilt and of shame. When a survivor reports a crime such as this to the police, a crime in which one or both parties were consuming alcohol, the case can become that much more complex. If a survivor’s blood alcohol level is found to be high enough to suggest that he or she was not in physical condition to provide consent, this can serve as evidence of that person being incapacitated.
There is another perspective to the relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. That is the fact that if a person is also a survivor of child sexual assault, alcohol consumption can be used as a coping mechanism. This increases the risk of being sexually assaulted once again, perhaps by “lowering the ability to perceive risk as the intoxication level increases.” (Norris, J., 2008, December).

Underage drinking is something that we as parents and community members are rightfully concerned about. It is important to not only look at the issue on the surface, but also to examine the hidden risks involved, if we are to make effective and lasting changes.

Finally, and most importantly, there is absolutely no circumstance or excuse that ever gives a person the right to sexually assault another person. Sexual assault is a serious crime that should be taken seriously and at no time is a victim at fault.

There are some great tips for parents of teens located at

Norris, J. (2008, December).
The Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Sexual Violence. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet,
project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition
Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved February 28, 2013 from:

Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine
24 hour support line:  1-800-822-5999

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Science of not believing in Science

Cruising around the internet this week, I ran across an interesting article that focused on why people often are unconvinced by scientific evidence.  The article appeared in Mother Jones in 2011 and has a liberal slant, but it contained information that I think applies to a variety of human enterprises...including the prevention of problem adolescent behaviors like substance abuse and suicide.

Chris Mooney's piece (The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science) explains that even when we are at our most "logical," our prior knowledge, emotions, and biases deeply color the way we process information.  One of the ways that this plays out is in the way we determine who is credible.  It turns out that we are not very quick to accept those who contradict our deeply held beliefs or values as expert...

This makes considerable sense when you think about it.  If people have developed a belief system over many years, and have organized their actions around it, it would be somewhat irrational to think that they might throw their beliefs out based on a piece of "evidence."  (Even if it was very sound evidence, from a logical standpoint.)  People gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select the sources that deliver it. No real surprise here.

This leaves those of us trying to infuse science-based practice into our community prevention work in a bit of a pickle.  How do we deliver information in a way that can be heard and processed so that it neither overstates or understates the credibility of the person or organization delivering the message, nor leads to the backlash of even more entrenched views that sometimes results from being confronted with information that contradicts what you currently believe?

For example, if I were to tell you that marijuana use can cause addiction, what is your reaction?  Do you first weigh the statement against your own knowledge and experience (perhaps your friends used it and they aren't addicts?)?  Or do you first consider whether I am likely to be an expert in this area of information?  What would lead you to be likely to read and objectively consider studies that support this fact?

As a real science geek, this is fascinating.  As a preventionist with a real sense of urgency around correcting some common misconceptions, it is terrifying.

I would love to hear your thoughts about it!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mental health stigma: changing minds and outcomes

Last month’s tragedy in Connecticut thrust our country into a painful moment of collective reflection. The debate on how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again touches upon many subjects: gun control, school security measures, and the possible effects of video game violence on young brains, among them.

And then there is the question of the mental illness. Consider a simple fact: Mental, emotional, or behavioral health problems affect one in five children and adolescents. Put another way: a child is as likely to suffer one of these disorders as s/he is to break a bone. Mental health affects everyone regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

Consider another fact: Mental illness is preventable. Unfortunately, many people who suffer mental illness do not seek the treatment they need because of real or perceived barriers. Among these are:

·      Attitude: Believing that mental illness will resolve on its own or believing that psychiatric care would not be beneficial
·      Financial concerns: Lack of health insurance coverage, or coverage that leaves a large amount owed by the patient.
·      Poor self-perception: Unlike with physical illnesses, people suffering from a mental illness often do not realize that they are ill.
·      Poor access:  Some Americans have poor access to mental health care services because they live in a rural environment. Others lack transportation options or are overwhelmed by work and home responsibilities.
·      Stigma: Many patients believe a stigma exists regarding the mentally ill. They feel that negative stereotypes could damage their careers or relationships. Embarrassed and fearful of what others may think, they do not seek the services they need.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Getting help at the earliest possible time is key to feeling better and possibly to preventing mental illness altogether. Early identification and intervention improve outcomes for children, before these conditions become far more serious, more costly and difficult to treat. Some facts on children and mental illness from Mental Health America reveal the scope of the problem:

·      13% of youth aged 8-15 live with mental illness severe enough to cause significant impairment in their day-to-day lives. This figure jumps to 21 percent in youth aged 13-18.
·      Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.
·      Despite the availability of effective treatment, there are average delays of 8 to 10 years between the onset of symptoms and intervention—critical developmental years in the life of a child. In our nation, only about 20% of youth with mental illness receive treatment.
·      Unidentified and untreated mental illness is associated with serious consequences for children, families and communities:
o   Approximately 50% of students aged 14 and older with mental illness drop out of high school—the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
o   90% of those who die by suicide have a mental illness. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth aged 15-24; more youth and young adults die from suicide than from all natural causes combined.
o   70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have mental illness, with at least 20% experiencing severe symptoms. At the same time, juvenile facilities fail to adequately address the mental health needs of youth in their custody.

We know HOW to prevent many forms of mental illness through appropriate, timely interventions. If we are to capitalize on our proven ability to shape healthier lives, however, we must rethink our negative attitudes. The answer to our mental health crisis lies in education and the correction of common misperceptions. Shine a light on the problem and the barriers facing those in need of help will begin to fall.