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Protecting Our Children from Addiction – Part 1

by Larry Moliterno

In your life, certain moments stick with you. Not too long ago I attended a funeral of a young man in his 30s who had died from a heroin overdose.

I watched his mother standing next to the casket, as she looked at him in disbelief. I was nervous as I approached the casket, not sure what I could possibly say to her — but she did most of the talking. She talked about memories of her little boy, his dreams and hopes, how he was a good boy and had lots of friends. He liked watching football, loved his mom’s meatloaf, and dreamed of being an architect someday. He was someone’s best friend, a caring son, a hard worker. He was not just a statistic.

His mother knew he had been struggling with the disease of addiction for years. She had been involved in support groups with other parents. She prayed that it would never happen to her precious son — then she got that awful phone call. She stopped talking and simply looked up at me and said, “We have to stop this, we can’t let another mother go through this.” I couldn’t get her words out of my head.

No more than a week later, I was at the grocery store and saw a mother and her young baby. I watched how she held him and how she looked at him — so full of love, so full of hope for his future. How do we make sure that mother doesn’t get that awful phone call someday?

An ancient fable tells of a man who’s walking along the river and sees a baby floating in a basket. He jumps into the water, swims to the basket and brings the baby ashore. But as he gets to the shore, he sees ten more babies in the water. Soon the river is full of babies, and even the entire village can’t save them all. They realize that in order to stop the problem, they must prevent the babies from ending up in the water to begin with. So they go upstream together and find an ogre putting those babies into the river. They work together to chase him away.

Our community is facing a similar situation as it relates to the drug epidemic. As a community, we all have a drug problem. It creates problems in our schools, weakens our workforce, increases our healthcare costs, and makes our neighborhoods less safe. So like the ogre story, we have to go upstream to try and prevent the problem.

Think about what we do to protect our children from getting sick or being hurt. We bundle them up on a cold day and teach them to look both ways before crossing the street. Communities paint school crossing lines and establish lower speed limits near schools. Regulators mandate cars that beep until you buckle up, and legislators enact laws to make sure kids are in car seats.

Why don’t we go to such great lengths to protect them from addiction? More than 90 percent of adults who develop a substance use disorder began using before they were 18. Young people who start drinking by the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop an addiction than those who wait until the age of 21. The longer we can prevent the onset of use, the more we decrease the likelihood of them developing a problem.

In the next two installments of this series, I’ll discuss Risk and Protective Factors and how they play into prevention, and how you can get involved in protecting our children from addiction.