Starting the discussion about substance abuse

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The Hartford HealthCare (HHC,) Behavioral Health Network hosted a community dialogue in Southington this week, focused on addressing “substance abuse across the lifespan.”

The discussion was part of the National Dialogue on Mental Health, and is the latest in a series of open-dialogue forums sponsored by the HHC and its affiliates. The series was conceived following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, and similar conversations are taking place across the state.

In the months following the Newtown shooting, local and national behavioral health leaders began working with President Obama and Vice President Biden to outline a plan for directing national attention toward mental health.

The national plan for community awareness draws on the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to de-stigmatize mental illness “through education, discussion, and improvements in systems of care,” according to the HHC.

This discussion, held on April 15 at the Southington Municipal Center, invited community members to both listen and engage with panelists while encouraging attendees to ask questions and share personal stories.

“We’ve been working very closely with Southington schools and the local prevention council to really hear what is going on” said Carol Vassar, public relations and marketing manager for the HHC Behavioral Health Network.

The town’s first open discussion featured Southington community leaders Susan Saucier, Director of Southington Youth Services and Margaret Walsh, Director of Pupil Services for Southington Public Schools. The panel also included Tim Harmon, a young adult in recovery who shared his shared his experiences with overcoming addiction at the Rushford Center, Rushford’s medical director, Dr. J. Craig Allen, who specializes in substance abuse issues, and Linda McEwen, a licensed clinical social worker at the Hospital of Central Connecticut.

The panelists covered a wide spectrum of substance abuse issues, including community epidemics, usage statistics, warning signs and preventative measures, but focused their attention on youth prevention, given recent trends in the Southington community.

Two incidents in Southington this month found 39 teenagers drinking underage.

A house party on East St. on April 9 accounted for 29 of the minors, ages 16 to 18, while a motel party following the Southington High School junior prom identified 10 more underage drinkers. Both incidents involved parents who were responsible for providing the alcohol and were charged with permitting minors to possess alcohol.

While Dr. Allen recognizes substance addiction as a chronic and reoccurring disease of the brain that can affect people of any age, he said addictions are considered a “developmental disease” because adolescence is often the time when substance abuse begins. Allen shared that 90 percent of adults who have substance abuse problems started using drugs or alcohol before the age of 18, and 96 percent began before age 21.

According to Allen, these statistics show parents that “if you can prevent your child from using drugs or alcohol until the age of 21, you’re practically assured that your child won’t develop a substance abuse issue.”

Saucier and Walsh spoke directly about their involvement in the Southington community, working toward prevention and resources for youth ages 3-21.

Given that the risk of developing a substance abuse issue is 50 percent higher for children in a home where one or more adults are using a mood-altering substance, Walsh described her efforts toward helping Southington school staff identify children who might display signs of living in a home with a substance abuser. She listed potential warning signs and behavioral patterns, and described ways that Pupil Services for Southington Public Schools helps provide predictable and safe environments for children of parents with addiction problems.

Susan Saucier from local prevention coalition (STEPS,) the Southington Town-Wide Effort to Promote Success, said recent incidents are strong examples of what might lead kids to have substance issues in the future.

Saucier, who has worked in youth services in Southington for 34 years, and represents prevention as president of the STEPS advisory board, spoke specifically about youth prevention in the community.

She discussed the importance of reducing access to drugs and alcohol, and “doing things in the community that are going to make permanent change.” Current efforts include youth service programs to train peer advocates, offer youth employment resources, and run a juvenile review board and student workshops.

Given the high numbers of underage alcohol consumption in Southington this month, the panel agreed that preventing substance abuse among youth is a top priority and parents need to “send a clear message” that substance use is unacceptable.

“These are things that people don’t like to talk about, they’re uncomfortable to talk about” said Walsh, “but we need to talk about them.”

Vassar said many other community towns have turned down opportunities for open discussion about substance abuse, and thanked leaders in Southington for their honesty and support.

The goal of bringing mental health discussions into Southington is to “partner with the community and continue the dialogue that we’ve been bringing across the state of Connecticut,” said Vassar.

This discussion marks the first conversation of its style in Southington. Paired with a recent spike in reported underage drinking, this substance abuse dialogue may pave the way for more open conversation between experts, community leaders and residents working toward de-stigmatizing mental health and preventing substance abuse.

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Taylor Hartz, email her at

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