Mental health 01

Parents and community members walk through a simulated teenagers bedroom and take note of items they feel might be suspicious during an educational session at Brookville Middle School in Lynchburg on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

A soda can, a backpack, a hairbrush — these common, everyday items don’t look out of place in a teenager’s bedroom. But Tuesday night, about 20 parents, teachers and community members at the Right Before Your Eyes simulation at Brookville Middle School learned how easily accessible items like these could be used to conceal drugs and alcohol.

Karen Tanner, unit coordinator and extension agent of Family and Consumer Sciences at the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said the Right Before Your Eyes program is available for schools, workplaces, churches, community centers and more.

“It’s not just limited to schools and teachers,” Tanner said. “We want to inform individuals at any organization that interacts with youths at all and could benefit from this information.”

Tanner also serves as the president of the Brookville Middle School Parent Teacher Organization, which sponsored Tuesday’s event.

Participants walked through a simulated teenager’s bedroom and were asked to write down any items that caught their attention. They were asked to pretend they were in their child’s room dropping off a basket of clean laundry — in and out, not a thorough search.

Tanner then shared statistics about the use of drugs and alcohol among teenagers and teenage depression. Teen drug and alcohol abuse is more common than most parents think, Tanner said. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15% of Virginia high school students reported they drank alcohol for the first time before they were 13 years old, compared to 16% in the U.S. as a whole, and 12% of Virginia high school students reported using vaping devices, compared to 13% in the U.S.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in teenagers,” Tanner said. “Fourth is drug and alcohol abuse.”

Symptoms of teen depression can look like typical teen behavior, Tanner said. Moodiness, weight loss or gain, too much or too little sleep, or disinterest in daily activities are some common symptoms of teen depression.

In isolation, these symptoms can look like typical teen behavior, Tanner said. But, when combined with risky behavior such as drug or alcohol use, they can signal a greater problem.

“I’m not here to scare you,” Tanner said. “If we don’t share this shocking information with our parents, it’s like keeping a secret that doesn’t need to be kept.”

Tanner showed parents the dozens of items in the bedroom that seemed ordinary, but were really meant for concealing substances.

Michelle Wilgus, a parent to a 13-year-old in Campbell County Public Schools, said several of the items shocked her.

“As a kid, I was like the ‘good kid,’” Wilgus said. “I didn’t participate in drugs or alcohol, so I just came to see what kids are participating in and how I can be prepared for that.”

Wilgus said she was shocked to learn how many items are marketed and sold to be used to conceal illegal substances.

The simulation of a teenager’s bedroom was small — including only a bed, nightstand and desk. But, it was filled with normal, everyday items that could be used to conceal or used to ingest drugs and alcohol. Tanner said every item was purchased from Amazon, the dollar store or Walmart, so they’re easily accessible to many teenagers.

While Tanner encouraged parents not to ransack their child’s bedroom, she said “if you start seeing some symptoms and behavior patterns, it’s worth taking a look a little bit deeper.”

After exploring each of the items, Tanner shared techniques about communicating with teenagers when they’ve noticed a change in behavior or the presence of symptoms of depression.

One of the best techniques is using “I messages,” she said. Approaching a teenager with a statement expressing how you feel could prompt the teen to tell you how they feel.

“Wrap conversation around your feelings,” Tanner told parents. “It’s not nearly as judgmental as a lecture would be.”

Meredith Baker, a parent in the division and a member of the Brookville Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization, said she learned a lot from the presentation.

“I learned that I’m very naive and dumb when it comes to the lengths that kids will go to hide drugs and alcohol,” Baker said. “It’s very scary.”

Organizations can request to host the program by contacting Tanner at (434) 943-9365. Due to the sensitive nature of the simulation — and the inclusion of drug paraphernalia — participants must be 21 and older. The program is also limited to parents, caregivers, educators or those who work with youths.

“This is so important to know, especially if you’re somehow involved with children because the percentage of teenagers who are addicted to drugs and cigarettes and alcohol is just ever increasing, and we don’t think about it,” Baker said. “Ignorance is bliss.”

Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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