As we all know, quarantining was not kind to many of us. Positive Directions (PD), an incredible Westport-based non-profit center for mental health and addiction prevention, saw a 50% weekly increase in clients, primarily for anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and family therapy. This may be a good thing. “It’s a positive sign that people are getting help,” states PD Executive Director Vanessa Wilson. “It’s a sign of reducing barriers and reducing stigma.”
Which is all the more positive given that the math is conclusive; everyone reading this has been or will be affected by substance abuse or mental illness. Over 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, and 1 out of every 5 adults have mental illness. Oftentimes addiction and mental health are inextricable.
The toll that mental illness and substance abuse takes on the afflicted person and their family can be dire. Despite this, I - and probably most of you - have seen educated people deny they have issues, and parents refusing to admit their child’s problems. This may be due to stigma, cost, or simply ignorance.
While the bulk of PD’s patients are between 21 years old to middle age, 25% of them are adolescents as young as 12 years old. 15.4% of their active patients are from Westport and Weston.
PD’s youth surveys are a unique and important part of their work, enabling them to glean data regarding relationships, stress, and substance abuse. Results of an April 2021 survey in Westport Public Schools indicate that 25% of the students in grades 7-12 were using alcohol during the pandemic and one in ten was using marijuana. By senior year, 60% of Westport youths reported currently using alcohol and 25% reported currently using marijuana or vaping (typically both).*
“The legalization of adult-use of marijuana in Connecticut has lowered the perception of its harmfulness,” PD Prevention Director Margaret Watt explains. “But it’s extremely dangerous for teen brains - they can lose 6-8 IQ points and are at a high risk for psychotic disorders.” As well, weed has become more potent in the last 20, even 10 years.
They share this data with schools and human services, to develop strategies and programs to teach peers and parents about mental illness and substance abuse. Says Gail Kelly, PD Board President, “[The programs] contribute to a healthy community. If you don’t have that issue, you’re at least educated enough to identify it and identify it early. Kids need to know what it does to them, what it does to their body and their decisions.”
The best way for kids to learn about mental disorders and drug harm is from parents. “Kids may roll their eyes when their parents talk to them,” states PD Board Secretary Lee Bollert, “but we know that kids listen to their parents.”
So, how do we as parents, relatives, and friends, determine if a child or loved one needs help? Noticeable changes in activities and moods - whether it appears positive or negative. It’s especially tough with kids, sifting through normal teenage angst and identifying any grains of concern. But PD Board Member Lynn Abramson cautions parents, and friends, to “err on the safe side. A significant change may seem normal but worth checking out.”
Though the stigma is diminishing… slowly… a child or adult may have difficulty accepting or controlling mental illness or substance abuse. PD also runs weekly “SMART Recovery” skills groups. These groups, free of charge, help participants “learn practical psychology-based tools and gain social supports” for long-term success. Groups are also available for families and friends.
They’re also partnering with turningpointct.org, a digital platform developed by recovering young adults for others to share their experiences. These individuals suffer from a range of mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. Many of the stories are difficult to read but, ultimately, glorious in the strength and self-acceptance by the author.
None of us are alone in this. We will all need support at some point, on some level. “It’s important to know who we are - if you don’t need us someone else might,” states Angelina Miceli, PD Clinical Director. Vanessa adds, “Preventing substance abuse is the greatest investment a family could make.”
*Survey from April 2021, 797 Westport students in grades 7-12 responded - roughly 20-30% of the student base.
Founded over 50 years ago by [Westport residents] in recovery from alcohol addiction, Positive Directions today is a non-profit behavioral health organization providing a continuum of prevention, counseling, and recovery supports to individuals and families struggling with mental health or substance use disorders. We believe strongly that "prevention works, treatment is effective, and recovery is possible." [PD] works to remove financial barriers and to provide supports beyond clinical treatment to ensure that individuals and families can lead healthy, successful lives.
“PD helps people who don’t have the access to private mental health. We help everyone, regardless of income level and socio-economic background.” - Angelina Miceli