WINNEBAGO - Substance abuse is a problem affecting increasingly younger children, says Naomi Ochsendorf, program director at the Adolescent Treatment Center in Winnebago.
To help combat the trend, the center will observe Red Ribbon Week from Oct. 23-30.
"It's a public stand against drug abuse," Ochsendorf said. "The red ribbon is the sign of intolerance for drug abuse."
On Wednesday, youth at the residential center will wear red shirts and bracelets that say "My life, my choice, drug-free."
On Oct. 26, the center will host a 5K Fun Walk/Run that is open to the public. Registration begins at 8 a.m. at the center, located at 620 First Ave. SW
Anyone seeking more information about the 5K can call the center at (507) 893-3885 or toll-free at (800) 637-2460.
Taking part in the national Red Ribbon Week campaign is important to the staff and clients at the Treatment Center because they see the effects of drug abuse.
"Statistics show if a child is using by [age] 12 or 14, it increases the chances of dependence," Ochsendorf said. "Obviously, we want to have prevention or intervention at younger ages.
"There are kids who are using at 6 or 8 years old," she added. "Obviously, their chance of developing dependence is very high, very strong."
Sadly, many youngsters are learning to abuse drugs from their own parents.
"Parents use it or give it to them," Ochsendorf said. "They are in their addiction as well."
Alcohol and marijuana are the drugs of choice.
"Marijuana is very different today than it was in the '60s and '70s; it's more potent," she warned.
"There's still some synthetic marijuana use," Ochsendorf said. "There's no regulation to it, so you don't know what it all contains or how potent it is.
"From use to use, it can have very different effects. It can have a very mild response and the next time it can lead to psychosis."
The reaction also can depend on an individual's body chemistry, she said. One child can have a benign reaction while the next might not.
"There's no way to predict what those reactions can be," Ochsendorf said. "You could end up in the hospital."
Even if a person tolerates a drug well, it could affect them in the future.
Other drugs are on the rise too.
"There is an increased use of opiates, prescription medicines," Ochsendorf said. "That leads to heroin use, which is easy to obtain and it's cheap on the street."
The best way to handle substance abuse is to stop it as soon as possible. That means knowing the signs of abuse.
Ochsendorf said to watch for severe changes in kids' behavior or personality; different friends; or being secretive about friends or where they are going.
Changes in school performance or priorities is another warning sign. If a child's grades drop suddenly or he gives up activities he loved, it means his attention has been taken elsewhere.
"If they're hungry all the time or not hungry at all," Ochsendorf said. "Up all the time or really depressed, or [they] fluctuate really quickly with no explanation."
She realizes most of this sounds just like regular adolescent behavior, so it can be hard to tell what's hormonally driven mood swings and what is caused by drugs.
"Know your kid's friends and their parents," Ochsendorf said. "Be active in their schools, set boundaries and don't be your kids' friend. Hold them accountable."
Setting boundaries is important, even if it isn't easy, she said.
"Sometimes parents choose the easier ways to avoid that conflict and risk their kid being angry at them," Ochsendorf said. "Some of it is their own fear, that 'If I acknowledge this is going on, I have to do something.'"
For parents who need help, the Treatment Center is there. It just began offering outpatient treatment for nine hours per week, three nights per week. The program is open to youth who have completed the residential program and want extra support as they venture back into the temptations of the outside world. It's also available to children who need help handling substance use before it spirals out of control.
"Once they're in treatment, we have a very good family program on setting boundaries and holding them accountable," Ochsendorf said.
In the outpatient program, a counselor offers family sessions in a client's home and serves as a resource for the school to help any youth who might be at risk.
It can be difficult for parents to know what to do, Ochsendorf said, because some kids are drawn to trouble.
"By the time you get to residential treatment, there's a lot wrong with your life," she said. Kids who are in that deep "don't seem to have the shutoff switch."
Those children tend to be thrill-seekers, needing more and more danger.
"Some of that is the fast pace of our society, so much more information that they're flooded with. They expect that constant stimulation. It pushes them to look for other ways to be entertained when what they have is not enough," Ochsendorf said.
There is always hope, she said. The key is to look ahead to the future, not behind to the past.
"Focus on the impact they can have now in recovery," Ochsendorf said, "and create a community where we're supportive of those changes. Winnebago is very supportive of the Treatment Center and the kids we serve."
For more information, visit redribbon.org or www.uhd-atcw.com online.