Drug abuse prevention workers knew early on that the pandemic was going to have a detrimental effect on their efforts to stop or at least delay young people from picking up alcohol, marijuana or vaping, drugs believed to be the gateway substances to harder drugs such as opiates.
So, when the pandemic first hit, Kym Laube of Westhampton Beach-based HUGS, Inc. immediately put out social media posts calling for colleagues in the prevention field to join a Zoom call. More than 100 coalitions and agencies from around New York State answered that call. About 35 of them continue to meet weekly to discuss new techniques to deliver prevention presentations when schools are closed.
“The younger a person chooses to use [any substance], the greater the predictor for a lifetime of addiction,” Laube said. “It’s connected to brain development. If a child puts a substance (such as alcohol) in their body prior to the age of 15, they are five times more likely to develop substance use disorder. The brain doesn’t fully develop until the average age of 27.”
HUGS (Human Understanding and Growth Services), the lead agency for a federally funded coalition called SAFE in Sag Harbor, was joined on the call by prevention agencies throughout Long Island including Hope for Youth in Amityville, Lindy Cares in Lindenhurst, and LI Prevention Resource Center in Bay Shore. These key stakeholders continue to come together to mobilize their communities to bring about healthy community outcomes.
Once everything shut down, HUGS kept its lifesaving programs going, virtually, and added weekly family fun nights on Zoom.
The 40-year-old prevention agency, which is funded in part by a five-year Drug Free Communities grant from the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports, had to cancel multiple fundraising events that help keep the programs going.
Meanwhile, alcohol sales skyrocketed in late March and about 38 percent of New York State residents reported drinking while working from home during the current COVID-19 lockdown, according to a study published on the website Alcohol.org.
Laube, who has been working in prevention for more than 30 years, said young people have seen adults drinking more, celebrating with alcohol, and coping with difficult things with alcohol.
“It normalizes the behavior,” she told the Press. “Oftentimes young people will mirror what they see adults do.”
Laube and other prevention workers say the journey into drug addiction can begin with alcohol or vaping. But this is not always the case.
“Some people pick up alcohol, and it’s their drug of choice and it stays there,” she said. “Some can go on to socially drink and handle it … But for one in ten, it goes to full alcoholism … maybe they are predisposed to addiction, and their disease takes off into heavier substances.”
Before the pandemic hit, Laube traveled to schools across Long Island and around the country speaking about prevention. On three weekends during the school year, HUGS hosted Teen Institute, teen leadership conferences on Shelter Island for 80 to 100 teens, events which were technology-free, high-end team-building, experiential learning events.
“We talked about the hard stuff,” such as suicide, mental health, how to be leaders and how to make the world a better place, Laube said. Last month, the event was held virtually.
“It’s important that when we don’t have access to kids through school that we have other ways of reaching them, of getting our message out there: How quickly people get addicted to synthetic drugs, opiates and how quickly they hit bottom as a result,” she added.
HUGS, which started in 1981, is strictly a prevention-based program. Those in need of treatment or counseling are referred to treatment professionals.
Amber Arzu, 18, from Lindenhurst told the Press the event helped her get through the peak of the pandemic.
“Teen Institute has always been something I look forward to, to get away, learn something new,” she said. “It was a break from the rest of the world and being with people close to us. The presenters really lifted you up.”