By Roni Talby
Mercer Island is a wealthy, privileged and safe community with one of the best public schools in the nation. However, this does not mean that we are clean of problems that plague other communities, especially in the case of drug and alcohol consumption.
For some readers, this may be a horrifying shock and prompt a serious conversation with their families. For others, though, this comes as no shock at all. It is dangerously taboo to truthfully and realistically consider how many of Mercer Island’s children are hooked to mind-altering substances.
According to the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, 11.8 percent of MIHS seniors (out of 168 seniors who took the survey) admitted to using cocaine, 10.5 percent admitted to using inhalants, 9.2 percent said they have used methamphetamines and 7.9 percent admitted to using to steroids without a prescription. 7.9 percent is also the number of seniors who stated they have used heroin at least once.
Although these statistics represent the highest percentages of drug usage out of all the grades, they also show that drug consumption among students in Mercer Island schools starts as early as sixth grade, and rates of usage climb as the grade level does.
One reason some people may not have heard of this problem is because wealthy communities like ours are exceptionally good at glossing over uncomfortable issues like teenage intoxication and drug use.
Although we don’t struggle with substance abuse any more than poorer communities, Islanders have the resources to get higher quality drugs, or to receive medical help if and when necessary.
On Mercer Island, most parents can afford to send their children to first-rate rehabilitation programs and have the social standing to cover treatment as a “trip.” This is a privilege that lower-income teenagers struggling with addiction cannot afford.
Yet sweeping dust under the rug doesn’t make it go away, and Mercer Island needs to take action. If the public shows apathy, our elected officials will be just as uninterested in taking steps to stop the drug epidemic.
To curb this epidemic, Islanders should be encouraged to speak up about addiction, and we as a community need to show our support. We must offer motivation and guidance instead of shaming people struggling with addiction and forcing them to hide their troubles. We need to educate children on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and stop perpetuating the culture of substance abuse as “cool.”
There’s a long-established attitude that teenagers will find a way to drink and take drugs no matter what, leading some parents to make the difficult decision to host events involving substances.
Admittedly, it is better for parents to provide a safe and monitored place for their children to experiment, where adults can ensure that no one goes overboard, than to vilify drinking, in which case children often lie about their activities and location because they feel scared to admit the truth.
However, rather than accommodating for the problem, Mercer Island can and should focus on the root of the issue.
Discourage the culture of binge drinking and excessive consumption to the point of blacking out; get educated about responsible drinking; encourage conversation amongst families to help students develop a healthy relationship with substances as they mature.
When children are introduced to potentially addictive substances in a safe, trusted and low-pressure environment, they’re far less likely to develop dangerous relationships with them.
Addiction and substance abuse may seem relatively unimportant to people who aren’t affected, but what if it was your brother or sister? What if it was your child risking their future, teetering towards a lifelong battle with addiction?
What if it was you?
If you are worried that a friend or family member — or you — may be struggling with addiction, please reach out to any of these resources.
Mercer Island SafeRides offers free and confidential rides home to Mercer Island teenagers from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on most Saturday nights throughout the academic year. Call (206) 941-4100 for a ride.
MIHS Substance Abuse and Intervention Counselor Chris Harnish provides support and resources for MIHS students and families struggling with addiction. Services include prevention, education, intervention and assessment and referral. Harnish can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 236-3363.
The MIHS Resource and Referral (R & R) Place offers students a safe, confidential place to gather informally on a drop-in basis and to seek support and guidance. Full-time MIYFS Counselors Cathy Gentino and Chris Harnish provide information, crisis intervention, short-term counseling, group support and referral to other services. Each staff also offers consultation with parents and school staff if needed. Gentino can be contacted at email@example.com or (206) 236-3290.
Mercer Island Youth and Family Services provides a variety of resources to support Mercer Island teenagers, including the Healthy Youth Initiative, Communities That Care (contact Sharon Broz at (206) 275-7743) and this video on youth and marijuana.