MONTVILLE, NJ – Montville residents had the chance to learn about signs and trends in substance abuse when the high school’s counseling department and the Montville Township Drug Awareness Council co-sponsored a seminar with Ellen Purtell.
Purtell is Clinical Director at Daytop NJ, located in Mendham and other towns. It is a residential substance abuse treatment center for adolescents.
“It’s never been harder to be a teen,” Purtell said. “There were 62 drug overdoses in Morris County in 2016. So far for January and February, there have been 11. Montville had seven last year. [Substance abuse] is everywhere and it’s getting worse. It’s a brain disorder and chronic medical condition that can be compared to hypertension or diabetes. There is darkness coming after our children, and it doesn’t discriminate. It will take any one of them down.”
Purtell spoke of teen parties where the party-goers “shop” their parents’ medicine cabinets, dump them in a bowl, and help themselves.
“Once a tolerance is developed, though, people are using the drugs just to function and to not be ‘dope sick,’” Purtell said. “It’s no longer about getting high for them – it’s just about survival. The reward center of the brain has been hijacked and basic needs matter less than getting a fix.”
Purtell stated that heroin is a problem principally because it is so cheap.
“Pills, like oxycodone, are too expensive – they’re above $50 each,” she said. “Heroin can be purchased in quantity for $3 a small bag.”
She said the heroin is mostly coming from Paterson, NJ, where gangs have made it their business.
“And they’re very good at it,” she said. “They don’t use it because it takes away from their productivity as marketers. They’ve seen the effects by stepping over the bodies on the sidewalk and they know better because they’ve seen it first-hand.”
Purtell said people are smoking marijuana, but also hash oil, “K2” (which is also called “spice”), and e-cigarettes with THC-based liquids.
“K2 is very dangerous,” she said. “I’ve seen people have psychotic breaks with it. Fortunately there’s not a lot of it here. E-cigarettes that have THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high, won’t smell like marijuana.”
Marijuana is more concentrated now, she said, making it more potent. She said that 36% of 12th graders have reported “using steadily.”
“I’m positive it’s higher than that,” she said. “But kids don’t think there’s a risk because it’s legal in some states. Marijuana affects the young brain, which is still developing. It affects cognition and short-term memory.”
Those who began to smoke heavily through their teens and into early adulthood reduce their IQ by eight to ten points, while adults do not appear to have that side effect.
Purtell described the process of smoking hash oil, which is also referred to as “dabs.”
“It’s 80 to 90% pure, and has no aroma,” she said. “Users take a nail with a small amount of the oil and heat it with a small blowtorch. It vaporizes the oil and then they inhale that vapor. If you find a blowtorch in your son or daughter’s drawer, and they haven’t been making you crème brulée lately, suspect a problem.”
Both Washington State and Colorado are acting to ban the manufacture and sale of hash oil, she noted.
Purtell said that 90% of adolescents entering residential treatment for drug abuse have had one or more “adverse childhood experiences,” which include death, domestic violence victimization or witnessing, a parent’s arrest and divorce.
“But it’s usually several experiences,” she said.
Stress from peers, from parents who want their children to perform, and bullying can also result in drug abuse.
“The bullying is 24/7,” she said. “Social media have made it very difficult to be a teen. There’s a lot of pressure to fit in. Parents who demand ‘results’ from their kids can also be part of the problem.
“It can be hard to know your kids are using, though, because the signs are so similar to that of being a normal teenager,” she said. “They isolate themselves in their rooms, they have a different group of friends that you don’t know, their sleeping and appetite habits change, they become argumentative… That’s what normal teens act like. A major sign is if they start to wear brands of clothing, such as Aperture, DGK, Seedless and SRH, which are associated with drug culture. The items have spots to hide drugs in.”
Purtell urged parents to trust their instincts.
“It may not be drug use – it could be anxiety, depression, or social problems,” she said. “But figure it out. Check for paraphernalia or empty liquor bottles. The U.S. Constitution ends at my driveway and my kids have no expectation of privacy in their rooms. Ask their siblings – they’re usually the first to know.”
She said parents need to have open lines of communication and listen without being critical.
“That’s the hardest part,” she admitted.
Purtell said that preventing drug use is important.
“I want to conduct these seminars in kindergartens,” she said.
She talked about the importance of teaching inclusion from a young age so that kids will not feel the need to measure up or bully.
“Make ‘home’ the soft place to land,” she said. “Have a balance in life – some athletes might worry that if they have an injury, their life is over if that sport is their sole identity. They need resiliency. Pay attention to their social interactions. Don’t talk negatively about yourself. Focus on the positive. Our kids need to learn to ‘toot their own horns’ in a healthy and authentic way. They don’t realize how special they are.”
Purtell urged parents to get help if they found signs of drug abuse.
“We have a higher success rate if the family gets on board,” she said. “Reach out for information, support and answers.”
Daytop has outpatient and residential treatment facilities, and she also recommended Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and private counseling.
Montville Township High School also has Student Assistance Counselors, with intervention, prevention, referrals, and support services to all students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, according to the school’s website.
“It’s a journey I hope none of you has to take,” Purtell said.