LIVINGSTON, NJ – In a show of community solidarity to address mental health and substance abuse issues in Livingston, especially as they affect the township’s teenagers, more than 40 community leaders came together with more than 100 parents, students and concerned citizens on Thursday to discuss ways they can work together to build a healthier community.

Forum moderator Eric Scott, vice president of NJ 101.5 News & Digital Operations, jolted the crowd to attention by telling them that he has personally been affected by this issue because he has a son with a heroin addiction.

“I am not ashamed to tell you that my son is a heroin addict…I also know where there is life there is hope,” said Scott, who emphasized the importance of parents admitting when there is a problem and having open communications with their children and counselors on addressing it as quickly and forthrightly as possible. “If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t begin to treat it.”

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Scott then introduced Detective Greg Drucks, of the Livingston Police Department, who told the crowd that the “opioid problem has not gotten into our high school.” He added that alcohol use and marijuana are “becoming common now among some kids.”

The detective said hard alcohol and marijuana are being found with greater prevalence at teenage house parties where the police are called in to check by neighbors. 

One Livingston mother got up to confirm Drucks’ findings, stating that she once received a call from her daughter 20 minutes into a party asking to be picked up because alcohol and marijuana had been snuck in. She said the community leaders and parents need to brainstorm together to "get our children to stop this behavior.”

Livingston Superintendent of Schools Christina Steffner said that unfortunately good kids are making bad choices every day. She said there are now three student assistance counselors at the high school who spend most of their days working with students who are dealing with drug or alcohol abuse issues as well as those with mental health issues.

“We recognize that students are going to make poor choices,” said Steffner. “We need to help them manage their stress, manage conflict and manage disappointment better.”

She added that students are taught the importance of mindfulness as part of remaining calm and having a well-balanced life. In addition, Steffner said that all students are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Chris Freer, medical director of Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s Emergency Department, said that a growing trend he is seeing is that young people are drinking a lot of vodka—more so than beer. He said this type of drinking raises blood alcohol levels higher more quickly.

Several counselors who also spoke at the forum agreed that social media issues can add stress to teenagers’ lives.

“Their world is centered around social media,” one counselor said. “They can feel pressure to keep up a streak of ‘Likes’ on the social media they are on. It’s real to them. It’s always been their world.”

Counselors also told parents the importance of discussing any family history of substance abuse or mental illness with their kids so that they can be aware of the risk they face in becoming addicts themselves. Another popular discussion item was the importance of families getting together for dinner on a regular basis to keep the lines of communications between parents and children open at all times.

Gary Burger, Assistant Principal, Guidance and Student Services at Kushner Hebrew Academy, said parents should be more open with the schools about children they know who have problems with substance abuse.

“When people are hiding information from the school, you are not helping your own child,” said Rubin. “The police are not there to harass or arrest a child. They are there to support them, and help them.”

Steffner touched on the same issue, stating that parents often want to protect their kids, and are in denial.

“That’s when we bring in staff to walk them through the issues,” she said.  

Officer Kevin Mullaney of the Community Policing Unit, which speaks to students about the perils of drugs, said one of the main topics this year was talking to students about how misusing prescription painkillers such as OxyContin can lead to heroin use.

Information was shared with parents about the importance of speaking with healthcare professionals before taking prescription opioids, and if they must take them, put them in a locked cabinet or drawer.

Lisa Joseph, regional Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention Team (ADAPT) organizer, said parents must be aware that they are legally liable if a young person attending a party at their home leaves their residence under the influence of a substance and gets into trouble. She said many parents are not aware of their legal responsibilities when a teenage party is held in their home.

The forum was hosted by the Livingston Municipal Alliance Committee (LMAC) and Healthy Community Healthy Youth (HCHY).  Sasha Pailet Koff, LMAC chair, partnered with Mike Ramer, Vision 20/20 education chair and founder of the Livingston Education Facebook group, along with Alan Karpas, HCHY president, and Martha Ackermann, HCHY vice president.

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