Prevention is the Key

In our twenty-first century American culture, many of us have a tendency to address problems more reactively than preventively. This is seen in health care when we focus our attention on excellence in bypass surgery, but not as much in preventing heart problems in the first place. It’s seen in the care of our home systems when we avoid maintenance until there’s an HVAC breakdown, rather than having regularly scheduled inspections of the system. And we can see it in our own parenting when, in a moment of total frustration with our child, we shout, “That’s it! You’re grounded for a month!” instead of, perhaps, dealing with the underlying behavior problem months ago.

In Roanoke City, many young people are faced with various issues that can be addressed through prevention. Drug and alcohol abuse is one of those concerns, and the Roanoke Prevention Alliance is a nonprofit coalition devoted to addressing this very topic.

RPA has a fivefold effort in keeping kids from starting in the first place: 1) Team up with other groups and individuals in Roanoke who are already committed to helping young people, 2) Monitor substance abuse trends in the area and make this information known to the public, 3) Implement strategies that prevent kids from abusing substances, or reduce, reverse, or minimize current substance abuse, 4) Advocate for strategies to combat substance abuse, and 5) Educate the community.

Melanie Morris, the RPA director, says the goal is to use evidence-based practices to help change the teenage social norms that exist in our neighborhoods, and to transform the perception of harm associated with teen drinking and drug use. Many parents and teens alike, Morris says, aren’t aware of the adverse effects marijuana and alcohol have on the developing brain. The meticulous data RPA collects on teen and young adult drug and alcohol use is applied through strategic programs throughout the city at the neighborhood level.

For example, here is some information the RPA has collected from a study about marijuana use:

“The part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses—known as the prefrontal cortex—does not fully mature until the age of 25. This can have noticeable effects on behavior, such as difficulty holding back or controlling emotions, a preference for high-excitement and low-effort activities, poor planning and judgment (rarely thinking of negative consequences), and more risky, impulsive behaviors, including experimenting with drugs and alcohol.”

Information like this, in addition to being reported on the RPA website, is brought to teens’ and parents’ attention through the use of well-crafted Public Service Announcements on social media and movie theaters, and through their StartTheTalk campaign.

By partnering with other community groups, RPA seeks to communicate the facts about drug and alcohol use to young people before it’s a problem. The organizations that partner with RPA include, among many others, Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, Total Action for Progress (TAP), Roanoke City Public Libraries, Children’s Trust, and Roanoke City Public Schools.

RPA strongly advocates parents talking with their kids about alcohol and drug use, citing research that shows parental influence really does make a difference. When parents talk to their teens about alcohol, Morris says, teens are much less likely to drink. And when their parents don’t approve of marijuana use, they’re less likely to use it. The simple act of having a conversation is an effective preventive measure against drug and alcohol abuse. RPA provides numerous talking points, infographics, articles, and other resources for having those conversations on

Teen vaping is another issue RPA takes on—it’s a growing trend in the area, and can lead to the abuse of other substances, says Morris. Not only that, some vape liquids (such as that in Juul pods) contain nicotine, and kids, who form addictions even faster than adults do, are finding themselves hooked.

Alcohol is the most-abused substance by minors in the City of Roanoke. RPA’s Youth Leadership effort, in coordination with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, has worked to combat underage drinking through projects like “Project Sticker Shock” and the “Join the 74” social marketing campaign.

Roanoke Police Sgt. William Drake notes that since RPA has focused on teen drinking, Roanoke has made significant progress on the reduction of drinking and driving. “They have the data to back up their work and passion to make it happen,” he says.

One of the best ways to keep kids from using drugs and alcohol in the first place is to address the root issues that lead them to the substances. Often, says Morris, those roots are found in childhood trauma of some kind, and that is why RPA has launched the Resiliency Collective. Resiliency, she says, is “the main component for success when faced with trauma.” The Resiliency Collective’s goal is to make both adults and kids “trauma-informed and resiliency aware.”

The key to that understanding is empowerment. When adults help kids set goals and build belief in themselves, resiliency is instilled within them. When an adult is a good role model and is someone a young person can talk to, this also builds resiliency. The focus of the Resiliency Collective is less of a “Don’t do Drugs” campaign, and more “Build Yourself up so you Won’t Ever Feel the Need to do Drugs.”

In Spring 2019, RPA will be launching two new programs through the Resiliency Collective: a media campaign for resiliency awareness, and a professional resiliency education toolkit created for organizations that serve kids and families. As we get closer to the kickoff of these programs, Growing Up in the Valley will provide another, more in-depth look at the Resiliency Collective’s work in Roanoke’s neighborhoods.

When it comes to the health and well-being of our young people, and for the health of future generations, preventive action is so much more beneficial and necessary than reactive. Rather than having to see our kids struggle with addiction and suffering later in life because of drugs and alcohol, we must take action through prevention and education. RPA exists to help us reach that goal.

by Jacqueline Moon