Chemical Health Blog - Let's Talk About It

  • Let’s Talk About it - Mental health and substance abuse

    Posted by Rebecca Velline on 2/24/2023

    The 2022 Minnesota Student Survey results were recently released. More than 135,000 students completed the survey with nearly all doing so in-person at school between January and June 2022. This group of students reported greater struggles with mental health, such as depression and anxiety, than at any other time in the history of the survey, which began in 1989 and occurs every three years. The 2022 survey saw the continuation of an upward trend, with 29% of students reporting long-term mental health problems compared to 23% in 2019 and 18% in 2016. Long-term means problems lasting six months or more. State of Minnesota Student Survey 2022.

    The relationship between substance use and mental health are often entwined. Looking specifically at adolescents, estimated rates of co-occurring mental illness among adolescents with substance use disorders range from 60 to 75 percent. As the adults in the lives of these adolescents, it is critical for us to discuss the signs of mental health and substance use concerns. Mental health concerns and substance use symptoms often can have a lot of similar symptoms.

    What are some early signs of substance use or mental health struggles?

    • Drop in grades and skipping school without explanation.
    • Isolating themselves away from family or friends.
    • Mood swings. Out of the normal behavior for the individual.
    • Difficulty concentrating at home or in school.
    • Loss of interest in life activities in and outside of school.

    Mental health and substance use signs can look differently for everyone. When I talk to loved ones of those who are addicted, often I hear them say, something just seemed off with them. 

    Hazelden has defined an acronym for risk factors of teen substance use:

    There are five main factors that contribute to a heightened risk for addiction, spelling out the acronym FACTS. 

    • Family history.
    • Age of first use.
    • Craving.
    • Tolerance.
    • Surroundings.

    It can be difficult having conversations regarding mental health and substance use with both adults and adolescents. Coming into these conversations with empathy and understanding can help open the conversation up for honest feedback. Our department is always here for support and questions on these topics.


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  • Let’s Talk About It - The Power of Connection

    Posted by Rebecca Velline on 1/19/2023

    The opposite of addiction is connection. This is my favorite phase in the chemical health field. I have witnessed the power of connection in many of my clients throughout the years. Why is this an important topic currently? Throughout the winter months, it is difficult to feel motivated to go on social outings and outdoor activities. This can lead to the winter months feeling more isolating, resulting in increased substance use. Furthermore, COVID-19 has made socialization more difficult in the last few years.
    A growing wealth of research demonstrates that social connection is as vital a need as our requirements for food, water, and shelter. Humans are hardwired to be inherently social creatures, and this has ensured our survival and evolution. We are more socially connected than any other animal on the planet.

    Tips for improving human connection:

    • Schedule time consistently to spend with friends and family. Scheduling plans makes it easier to follow through. 
    • Find others with similar interests can be instrumental in developing authentic relationships with others. 
    • We thrive on community support and kindness and emotional connection boost self-esteem, self-value, and confidence.

    What does the research say?

    • Numerous studies have evidenced that people with strong, positive connections live healthier, happier, and longer lives. A 2010 study indicated that people with strong social relationships were 50% more likely to survive than those without. 
    • Positive social networks play a key role in our overall well-being and physical and mental health. 
    • Research demonstrates that feeling connected and supported to others can help:
      • Maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI).
      • Decrease cancer risk.
      • Control blood sugars.
      • Improve cardiovascular mortality.
      • Decrease the risk of depression.
      • Reduce stress levels.

    Developing healthy interpersonal connections takes effort, willingness, and commitment. On average, it takes about two months to create a new healthy habit. So, give yourself grace when attempting these new healthy habits.

    If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Anoka-Hennepin Chemical Health Prevention Specialists for more resources:


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  • Let's Talk About It - Holiday Season and Chemical Health

    Posted by Rebecca Velline on 12/9/2022

    I am pleased to introduce our chemical health team and reintroduce our monthly blog, Let’s Talk About It. The chemical health department has had exciting changes this year. Chemical Health Prevention Specialist Joshua VanHeuveln MSW, LGSW, LADC, CPP began with the school district in Sept. 2022. A second Chemical Health Prevention Specialist Rebecca Velline MPNA, LADC joined the chemical health team in Nov. 2022. We are looking forward to providing education and support districtwide for the remainder of the school year.

    Now onto the December blog posting!

    The holiday season can be a joyous and stressful time of year for all. The holidays can be a trigger for mental health symptoms and increased substance use. Students and families who struggle with substances can have a difficult time during the holidays. 

    This time of year can also bring emotional stress, including family conflict, trauma, financial concerns, and loneliness. If we are not prepared to encounter these stressors, we may seek unhealthy coping strategies. These are a few tips that may help us avoid substance use and abuse during the holiday season.

    • Limit triggers for your child – Recognize triggers and then try to limit them (stress, environment, or certain people). Once triggers are identified, take notice of warning signs (thinking patterns and seeking out unhealthy situations).
    • Set boundaries – If you anticipate boundaries being tested during this holiday season, write out specific boundaries allowing everyone to feel supported and comfortable.
    • Create a plan as a family – Skip events that include family, friends, or peers that may encourage drinking or misuse of drugs. This could include bringing an accountability person to holiday events, bringing your own safe foods or drinks that you can enjoy, or creating an exit plan if an unhealthy situation arises.
    • Engage in healthy self-care – Pick up a new, healthy activity this holiday season so you do not revert to old patterns. Being intentional helps to make your self-care a priority.
    • Have a support system – If your child is part of a support group, make the time to engage in more meetings during the holiday times! It is important to build and regularly engage in healthy relationships.

    These are tips that are helpful for both our students and families to take care during this time of year. Beginning this conversation can assist in supporting our students during the winter break and holidays. 

    If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Anoka-Hennepin Chemical Health Prevention Specialists for more resources:


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  • Let’s Talk About It - Making Healthy Choices Around Alcohol

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 6/21/2022

    With summer break in full swing, I wanted to take some time to talk about a topic that is often overlooked when there is discussion around teen substance use: teen alcohol use.

    Teen alcohol use can sometimes be viewed as a “right of passage” and for this reason, along with the fact that it is socially acceptable and next to impossible to ignore, we are often sending the wrong message to both teens and adults. Honestly, there is much work to do around educating our teens and adults when it comes to alcohol use. Let’s talk about it.

    There are so many reasons one may begin drinking alcohol. For our teens, the ages between 11-18 can be an impressionable period of time when they are more susceptible to outside influences such as friends and social media. Life transitions such as moving between schools, family changes such as divorce, or a breakup in a relationship may fuel fears and increase anxiety and depression which can often lead to drinking in the hopes of alleviating any of these feelings. Stress is also a huge culprit. Fitting in, looking the right way, doing well in school and/or at work — these are all areas that can create a great deal of stress which often may lead to drinking in order to feel “better.”  

    What can parents/guardians do to help their teen as they deal with life challenges without turning to alcohol or other substances? Begin having conversations around substance use and healthy choices at an early age. Not sure about how to start the conversation? Here is a guide from SAMSHA (Substance Use and Mental Health Administration) that gives some great suggestions on doing just that — starting the conversation. Remember, it’s better to have 60 one-minute conversations than having one 60-minute conversation. Being prepared to answer questions will be key as well. I highly recommend the SAMSHA guide as a great resource to help you find the right way to be honest, yet careful, when confronted with questions about choices you may have made when you were a teenager.

    Also, it is important to be aware. Be aware of changes and don’t be afraid to ask questions. SAMSHA has another great tip sheet that I encourage you to reference. This will help you be more aware of changes in your child. While not all changes point to substance use, it is worth knowing how to navigate if substance use is of concern.  

    No matter the situation, if your child has been drinking it is important to remember: remain CALM. What does that mean?

        C - Control your thoughts and actions.
        A - Assess and decide if you are too upset to continue.
        L - Leave the situation if you are feeling too angry/upset.
        M - Make a plan to deal with the situation.

    As parents we are emotionally invested in our children. Due to our own life experiences, we tend to react to such news out of fear, pain, anger and frustration. While that is often not our intention, this is typical as to how it may play out. Before you know it, negative emotions are being felt by all and effective communication is non-existent, creating a challenging environment where no one gets anywhere and all parties feel hurt.

    If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. A great resource on how to communicate effectively can be found here

    Alcohol, in moderation, as an adult, poses no reason for concern. Alcohol, in any capacity, as a teenager, raises concerns and can lead to some serious challenges if left unchecked. My hope is you feel comfortable enough to have the conversation with your child. Knowledge is powerful, so share your knowledge.

    As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It - Celebrating (safely)!

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 4/28/2022

    I have spent the past few days thinking about topics I could share with you all, topics that would be important in the “here and now” and I continue to come back to one that I shared at this time last year — celebrating safely.  

    While there are so many topics I could cover, I feel this is one of the more important topics that never gets old, never changes, and always needs to be shared. That is why I have decided to re-share some important points from my original blog post back in April of 2021.  

    All that has been asked of us, all that we have done to keep ourselves and others safe has been a full-time job in itself. We are in year three of watching our seniors graduate during another incredibly charged, emotionally exhausting time. For many of us, it is a time to celebrate and begin the return to normalcy.

    While this year looks a bit more promising when it comes to “normalcy” for our seniors, there are still some challenges that need to be considered if/when it is decided to celebrate with family and friends. Graduation parties are often a time to celebrate all the successes and accomplishments of the graduate. While that should remain the focus, there are times when alcohol and/or illicit substances make their way into a celebration that not only change the overall mood of the celebration but can bring with it some serious legal charges.

    I have talked plenty about the importance of modeling appropriate behavior for our teens and the importance of having open conversations about the use of any mood-altering substance. With graduation right around the corner, this is a perfect time to revisit and remind all adults of the importance of setting boundaries and expectations when it comes to substance use of any kind for young adults. Let’s not forget that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s and any substance use can have an effect on how the brain develops and on future behavior (and future use).  

    When celebrating, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and maybe let our guard down. I want to share with you some important information when it comes to social host ordinances in Minnesota. Some may be unfamiliar with social host ordinances,  and many parents and caregivers may not be aware of the legal consequences of hosting a party where there is alcohol available to underage teens. 

    A social host ordinance makes it unlawful for individuals (social hosts) to knowingly provide a place for underage drinking to occur on premises under the host's control. The host is held responsible regardless of who provided the alcohol. The keyword is “knowingly.” If a parent or caregiver was unaware of consumption while away from the home they are not held responsible; however, there can still be consequences if a young person does leave under the influence and is involved in a legal matter after leaving. While not all cities have social host ordinances in place, there may still be legal consequences if a young person is supplied with any illicit substances by an adult. 

    Celebrations can still be fun and memorable without alcohol, and whenever there is an opportunity to show our teens this, we should! Teens pay attention to us more than we'll ever know. Here are some tips to celebrate safely:

    • Host a “dry” party where no alcohol is allowed.
    • Know where your child is, where they are going, and who they are with.
    • Talk with your teen about your expectations.
    • Set clear boundaries and make sure your child is aware of them.
    • Create a safety plan that allows them to text you if they are feeling unsafe or need to exit their environment quickly.

    There are a number of reasons why a teen will choose to drink alcohol and/or use an illicit drug.  Our own attitude towards this can set the stage for those teens who are watching us. There are ways parents can keep their children safe from addiction if the conversations begin when they are young and continue through their teen years. A good rule of thumb is to have 60 one-minute conversations on the importance of abstaining from substance use, rather than one conversation for 60 minutes! Hearing the message on more than one occasion will make a lasting impression.

    Celebrations at the end of the school year should be fun, memorable, and above all else, safe. As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It: What is CBD?

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 3/9/2022

    If you are anything like me, your attention span is not quite what it used to be and your capacity to learn has been challenged for the past two years. So, how do we even begin to try to understand something new? Or better yet, how can we be assured that the information we have available is accurate with the right information? These questions were at the heart of this month’s topic: CBD.

    First, what is CBD? This can be difficult to understand and I think it is important to know since the marketing of this product can be very confusing and misleading. CBD is one of over one hundred cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. It is non-intoxicating and touted as a “natural” substance that can help with some medical conditions as well as some mental health issues. You can find products from dog treats to lotions to CBD-infused clothing (yes, you read that correctly). This is where it gets a bit tricky. Marketing can be misleading and many companies state that their CBD products can help with anxiety, depression, aches and pains along with other mental health challenges and other ailments. When in doubt, always talk with your doctor and refer to the FDA guidelines that are available.

    Let’s first clear up some common misconceptions around certain words that are sometimes used when discussing CBD and use the correct terminology:

    • Cannabis: An annual, flowering plant that contains various levels of both CBD and THC, two of over one hundred compounds found in the cannabis plant. There are two main varieties of cannabis plants: indica and sativa.
    • CBD: Is the non-intoxicating compound that can be found in cannabis plants and is often referred to as cannabidiol (pronounced ca-nuh-bi-DYE-ol) and is the second most prevalent active ingredient in cannabis.
    • THC: The mind altering compound that is responsible for getting one “high”
    • Hemp: A specific variety of cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight.
    • Marijuana: psychoactive compound from the leaves, stems and flowers of the cannabis plant that contains THC above 0.3 percent. Also referred to as another variety of cannabis.

    Hemp plants and marijuana plants are both the same species, however, they will contain different levels of CBD and THC. Legally, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant that contains 0.3 percent or less THC, while marijuana is a cannabis plant that contains more than 0.3 percent THC. CBD can be derived from both hemp and marijuana plants. Hemp and marijuana are to cannabis as lemons and oranges are to citrus. Two related but different plants, from the same 'family.’  

    Let’s take this a step further: because of the Farm Bill in 2018, hemp was removed from the Controlled Substances list since it is used for many other products and does not contain enough THC to constitute this stringent label.  The problem is, there is little to no federal regulation around CBD products, allowing for inaccurate labeling and product verification. The bigger question is, which plant was the product derived from and is the information on the label accurate?  

    Is CBD a healthy alternative for some medical conditions? Some say yes, others say proceed with caution. I say, contact your physician and do your research. There are articles from the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School and the National Institute of Drug Abuse that may be worth reading if you would like additional information on the use of CBD products.

    As parents, it is difficult to stay up to date with all the various influences that students are faced with. Social media plays a huge role in this as well. One cannot glance through Instagram or Facebook without ads popping up along the way. Sadly, many of these ads are misleading and confusing. My hope is that you can be better informed and prepared to have the conversation with your child by being up to date on those trends that influence the youth of today. It is never too late to learn, and as a parent or caregiver to adolescents, it is important for you to have accurate information in order to point out any inaccuracies your child may have around anything related to substance use.

    As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It: Good Drug, Bad Drug?

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 2/18/2022

    As a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC), people often ask me what the worst drug is and my answer is often unexpected. My response is that all drugs can be dangerous and all, in some way, can be considered the worst.

    In my line of work, drugs are not defined as “worst” or “best.” All drugs have the potential to produce negative health effects and can often lead to a dangerous situation, both in the short or long term. While it is true that some drugs can cause serious health issues such as a life-threatening overdose, much depends on how much someone uses, how the drug is consumed, along with other factors. Let’s not forget that even over-the-counter drugs (OTC) can be dangerous when not consumed as directed. 24/7 Wall Street conducted a study that lists the top 25 most dangerous drugs as well as drug mixtures. These findings included side effects and death rates that were tracked by the government, and potential risk of drug combinations that were measured by using medical information through organizations and various reputable internet sources including the American Medical Association (AMA). A key take-away is that while some of the drugs on this list are often considered to be safe when taken as prescribed and/or as directed, all drugs can be fatal when used improperly or combined with other substances. 

    When students ask me directly about which drug is considered the worst, I am reminded that more often than not they are asking about what is most popular on the streets, in school, and possibly among friends. When I can, I remind students that nicotine and alcohol tend to be the worst drugs when looking at the statistics: long-term health effects of cigarette smoking are responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year (approximately 1,300 deaths every day) and alcohol is often involved in deadly car crashes where nearly one person died every 52 minutes from drunk driving crashes in 2019. Yet, the one drug that I am most concerned about is fentanyl. Back in December, I shared a blog about pressed pills, pointing out that they can often be laced with fentanyl. Knowing that this synthetic opioid is one of the most powerful drugs available, my concern is around the fact that while this is a prescription drug used often for pain management, it is also made and used illegally. Due to the strength of fentanyl, drug dealers often mix it with other substances to boost the high, thus creating the urge to repeat for the user and repeat customers for the drug dealer. Again, when someone takes a pill that is not prescribed to them, they risk ingesting something deadly and put themselves at risk for an unintended, often deadly, overdose. This past September, the DEA launched a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign. I encourage you to read and learn as much as you can in the hopes that the more we know, the more we can educate students about the dangers of fentanyl and substance use. 

    Another concern I have with categorizing drugs as “good or bad” is that it can lead to  misperceptions. For example, let’s look at marijuana. Students (and adults) often believe that marijuana is not bad for you since it is a plant-based substance. Many also refer to the legalization of marijuana in many states believing that if it is legal, it can’t be that bad. If you search the internet on the use of marijuana, you can get pages of misinformation, often misleading and lacking the necessary information needed in order to make a well-informed decision on its use. Again, I refer back to a previous blog that highlights the concerns around marijuana use for our students.

    In closing, I hope you can see that it is not that easy to say that one drug is better than another or that one is safer than another. So much depends on the reason behind the use (was it prescribed?), how one uses the drug (is it being used as prescribed?), and the reasons for the use (is it being used to deal with other issues?). For those that find themselves struggling with substance use, finding someone to help you navigate through your life challenges is key in living a life free from use.

    As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!” As parents and caregivers, you are on the frontline of educating your child. We are here to help.

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It: Fear of the unknown

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 1/27/2022

    Once again, I find myself reflecting on what is happening in our schools, with our students, and with the community as a whole. As I was doing so, a common theme emerged: fear. I quickly began to see how fear can be a common denominator in most anything. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of being without. Then it hit me — fear is so prevalent in substance use, yet it is rarely connected with how someone is dealing with substance use. Given the fact that a vast majority of us have been dealing with fear of some sort for the past two-plus years, it may be a good time to address it head on.

    What is really challenging is that fear can often fuel substance use, and substance use can often numb fear. I think about that statement and immediately visualize a hamster on a wheel. I then look at those who struggle with substance use in one way or another and realize that fear is often a barrier to getting the help they need. As a parent, I also look at fear as the reason why I may choose not to ask certain questions or ignore warning signs that I may have noticed with my student.

    Acknowledging and accepting fear as something one can manage is the first step in making changes to one’s substance use. Let’s take that a step further and break down some of those fears:

    • Fear of withdrawal: The fear of physical withdrawal is real and while it can last for a few days or up to a week or more, there is help out there for you to navigate withdrawal, which in turn helps diminish the fear.
    • Fear of change: Any of us fear change — we become comfortable with what we know. When one is using mood-altering substances to deal with fear, we must remember that the substance does nothing more than mask the fear. Appropriate substance use support and group therapy can help one realize that fear can actually keep us on the hamster wheel and while we may believe we are dealing with fear appropriately, we are only delaying the inevitable.
    • Fear of facing reality: For teens who are actively using, there is a real fear of reality. Most often lies have been told, trust has been broken, behaviors have been challenging and facing reality means one must face the negative of the substance use. Emotional baggage needs to be addressed and while there is fear in doing so, there are rewards far beyond that are greater. Rebuilt relationships, trust, and respect to name a few. 
    • Fear of sobriety: Substance use is often tied to the inability to cope with emotions. Addiction is devious. It makes one feel that without the substance, one will not be able to manage. While it may feel that way at the beginning, nothing can be further from the truth. Sobriety brings with it a sense of freedom, sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride.
    • Fear of success: This is a tough one. Feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt can keep someone from being successful when seeking sobriety. Many people dealing with substance use issues believe they don’t deserve happiness or success in their lives. If we have tried and failed, it is difficult to pull yourself up and start again. The thing is, recovery often includes failed attempts and this can lead to one feeling they are not deserving of success. Remember, one decision, one action, one day at a time. 

    Fear is often viewed as a negative reaction or a negative emotion. When fear enters your thought process, I challenge you to take the time to shift your thinking in a way that allows you to overcome the fear and continue to move forward. Focus on the positive, leave the negative behind. Focus on the goal, not the mistakes that have been made in order to achieve it! 

    As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It.”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It - What do we know?

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 12/10/2021

    We are just a few weeks away from the holiday break and I am still wondering where the time went. Our students have completed their first trimester of this school year and we all continue to adjust to all the challenges inside and outside our classrooms.

    In past blogs I have shared ways to begin the conversation around substance use and I have also highlighted the negativity and stigma as being barriers and the need to normalize the conversation rather than avoid it. I know this from working with teens around substance use: We must continue to break down barriers, destigmatize the topic and normalize the conversation if we expect our students to trust and believe in the support provided. I also shared in prior blogs that I would be sharing information on what we are seeing in and around our district. I will preface this by reminding everyone that our district is not any different than any other school district when it comes to substance use issues. We are, however, fortunate to have some incredible partners in place to help us meet the needs of our students.

    Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by “Tall Cop,” Jermaine Galloway. The webinar was very informative and I highly recommend attending a future presentation if possible. The webinar centered around those up and coming substances that literally hide in plain sight. It was also a stark reminder that as adults, we are often “behind the eight ball” when it comes to knowledge and understanding of what teens really do know regarding illicit substances. This is why I have decided to highlight the use of pressed pills.

    You may already be asking yourself, “What is a pressed pill?” This is a great question and an important one. A pressed pill is a counterfeit pill that is made to resemble a prescription grade pill (think of a legal prescription of Percocet, Adderall, Xanax or similar), however, it has been mashed and cut with other ingredients to change the high and to make more pills which leads to more money. These counterfeit pills can be cut and pressed with fentanyl and other deadly drugs. This DEA information sheet has some great information and visuals that may help you understand how easy it is to mistake a counterfeit pill from a legally prescribed pill. These pills and many other varieties are in every community across the country. We are not exempt from this. It is a reality. The reason I decided to share this information is because we need to understand the importance of educating ourselves so we can educate our children. For those that leave unfinished prescriptions in your nightstand or medicine cabinet, please know that unless you discard them properly they can very well end up being pressed into additional pills with additional ingredients and end up on the street and in someone’s hand without our knowledge. Local pharmacies often have safety boxes where you can discard old or unfinished medications and there are many Take Back Days sponsored by local communities.

    This past fall, the DEA issued a safety alert on fake prescription pills and WCCO aired a warning to the public that urged schools to prioritize pill warnings. The concern comes from the fact that students are unaware that it could take just one pill and the consequences can be deadly. Students often believe that taking someone else’s pain medications or anti-depressants or prescribed stimulants (similar to Adderall) is no big deal. It is. Students also believe that if they are told the pill is harmless or that it is actually what they think it is — it may very well be a counterfeit pressed pill and unless you are able to compare, you may not be able to tell the difference.

    Again, I share to educate. I share in the hopes that you can begin a conversation. I share to remove stigma and to normalize the conversation. If we don’t do any of this, we will continue to lose loved ones to the ugliness of addiction and to the belief that no harm can come of it. Another point I want to make is that it takes just one pill, one time. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you have been struggling with addiction for years or if you are trying a mood altering substance for the first time. It doesn’t matter.

    I know this is heavy, but I believe it is important to share. I hope you feel the same way and that you know more and feel more comfortable having the conversation. As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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  • Let’s Talk About It - Normalizing the Conversation

    Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 10/29/2021

    One of the first things I do before I start a new blog is to reflect on the previous month. I reflect on my role as the chemical health prevention specialist in the district, the programs we have in place to help support students and families who struggle with substance use, and what else can be done to help. I am acutely aware that my role is very specific and that not everyone sees substance use from my perspective. As I continue my work around substance use prevention, I find the stigma of substance use continues to be a barrier when it comes to normalizing the conversation and we need to remove that barrier so we can better support each other and better educate our children around the negative effects of substance use. 90% of adults who have at least one diagnosed substance use disorder began their use before the age of 18. If we don’t start talking about this early, and talking about this often, that number will only continue to increase.

    I am going to be blatantly honest. The young people in our community have easy access to popular drugs. Whether it be online, in social settings or in the community — they know how and where they can access them. If they don’t know, they certainly know who they can connect with to find them. One of our school partners, Hazelden Betty Ford, published an article in early spring that explains how easy it is to purchase substances online. I don’t share this to shock you, rather, I share this as something you should be aware of. I would also encourage you to check out our upcoming Parent Engage 360 events for more information on social media and internet safety. In order to normalize the conversation around substance use, one needs to have some knowledge in order to engage in the conversation.

    Talking about substance use is not easy, especially with our own children. It’s not comfortable. It’s not part of our daily conversation. Yet, it is important to talk early and to talk often. I have shared this before and know from my own experience how beneficial this is: Take advantage of having your child teach you! Ask open-ended questions and be prepared for the answer - no matter how shocking it may be. We need to recognize that what we grew up with, the social norms around typical teenage behavior, is much different today than it was back when we were the same age. With such powerful drugs circulating and easier access than ever, I do believe we have a responsibility to educate ourselves so we can educate our children.

    So, how do we educate ourselves? You are doing it right now! By reading this blog, by reviewing the links, by taking the time to read and learn, you are educating yourself. Next step is to normalize the conversation. Take advantage of those quiet times in the car, before bed, during dinner and start the conversation. Maybe ask specific questions such as “Hey, what are your thoughts on teens using?”- or - “I am curious, what do you know about (insert substance here)?” Initially, it may feel awkward or uncomfortable, but the more you approach it, the more open the conversation becomes. It is also important to not talk “at” your child, but talk “with.” Try not to overtake the conversation. I am quite sure my own children would find this quite entertaining since I was not always the best at following my own advice.

    In the coming months, I will focus on specific substances and share some myths and facts to help you continue to learn so you can continue to talk with your child. I am told one of the biggest barriers to having these discussions is the lack of knowledge. My hope is that I can share with you some valuable information allowing you to feel more comfortable with normalizing the conversation.

    I want to leave you with hope. Hope that not all is lost, because it’s not. Children are incredibly resilient and have the ability to adapt. Normalize the conversation, they will adapt to it. I also want to leave you with a renewed respect for health. By having conversations around substance use, you are also supporting your child’s overall health, both mentally and physically. Lastly, I leave you with a sense of healing. Parenting is NOT easy. You will make mistakes, but you will also learn and grow from them, which is what makes healing possible.

    As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It!”

    Colleen O'Neil

    Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
    Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
    Phone: 763-506-1145

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