The best defense to the opioid epidemic may be a good offense – engaging Worcester’s citizens, particularly its youth, in worthwhile activities, sports, programs, and treatment, before they can be drawn to using dangerous substances. As a Board Member of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, a member of the Children’s League, and an Adjunct Faculty for the Trauma Center, I often get asked to weigh in on this important topic. I think it’s critical that more attention be shifted to positive engagement of youth through citywide programming, as a proactive measure to stopping abuse before it starts.
A different approach is needed to treating this terrible epidemic, which had reached approximately 140 deaths as of 2016. This epidemic cuts across all socioeconomic statuses, but impacts impoverished youth (who make up nearly 50% of Worcester Public School students) disproportionately. Therefore, prevention must reach across the city both geographically and socioeconomically. Keeping youth engaged in and motivated by local activities, programs, and services, treats the problem before it begins.
While the City of Worcester has some strong programming for youth in place already, there are a number of gaps and always room for growth. Teachers are asked to do more and more each year, with less and less resources. Middle schools need competitive sports teams, which are free or offer scholarships. There needs to be more affordable afterschool programs, continued access to parks and recreational programs in our parks, free or affordable art and music activities, and other avenues for developing positive identities and growth. This has the important benefit of putting youth in the care of positive adult role models, who can mentor youth, intervene early, and connect youth with the services they need.
From a mental health perspective, substance abuse can be best viewed as a symptom of an underlying problem. Right now, we are mainly treating this symptom on the surface, rather than at its source. It is absolutely critical that the citizens of Worcester, and its policymakers, continue to support funding for these types of preventative, engagement-based programs.
Last week, Worcester received a grant from the Baker Administration that will guide people towards care, rather than jail, if they meet certain requirements. This is great news for the city, however, we need to view programming and funding for youth engagement as just as important to treating this pervasive and troubling problem. When elected, I am eager to champion the agenda of not only developing community services that treat the aftermath of this epidemic, but also to advocate for prevention programs that engage youth district and citywide.