MOUNT VERNON – By the time the 90-second PSA ended, the crowd of community leaders that packed the Woodward Opera House’s Recital Hall on Wednesday night seemed stunned.
The video depicted a teenage girl, Meredith, who had “everything going for her.” She was in-line for a track scholarship, held a job, and had recently fallen in love with a boy named Josh. But things began to spiral downhill after she went to her first alcohol-involved party, which was hosted by Josh’s parents.
She discovered she liked drinking and started coming back every weekend. As her grades slipped and her family life teetered, she began copping Adderall to deal with the stress. She became hooked on drugs, alcohol and an unhealthy relationship. She lost her job and her track scholarship.
Looking into the camera, stone-faced, Meredith reveals that it’s been six years since she started drinking. She’s been in and out of rehab five times and still lives with her parents.
She pauses, then delivers the question:
“I often wonder, if there wasn’t alcohol at my boyfriend’s, would this have ever happened to me?”
The PSA was created by members of New Directions’ Teen Advisory Council (TAC), in collaboration with the Knox Substance Abuse Action Team (KSAAT). Community members from various sectors – judicial, legislative, business and service – came Wednesday to see the PSA’s grand premiere.
The video’s message, portrayed through the title, is simple: “Be a Parent, Not a Friend.” It’s a message to those who willingly host parties involving underage boys and girls, even when statistics show the damage alcohol and drugs can have on a young brain’s development.
According to KSAAT’s 2017 PRIDE Survey, which involved over 1,800 students (grades 6-12) from across the county, underage drinking and drug abuse is a serious local issue. 50 percent of seniors and 34 percent of sophomores admitted using alcohol in 2017. Around 30 percent of seniors admitted using marijuana and/or tobacco, and seven percent reported using prescription drugs.
Most students who reported using substances began doing so around the age of 12 or 13, the study found.
Even more alarming were the responses concerning ‘access to substances,’ which the students portrayed in the PSA. The majority of students said they use alcohol “at home” or “at a friends’ house” on the weekends. Over 50 percent of seniors said alcohol and tobacco were “fairly easy” or “easy” to access, and nearly 40 percent classified marijuana similarly.
The Teen Advisory Council’s PSA tells the story behind the statistics. The scenes are authentic and raw. Many adults in the room seemed shocked by what the video showed, as they did not realize the prevalence of underage drug and alcohol abuse locally.
“It’s a big issue,” said Miranda Baker, a junior at Fredericktown High School who spearheaded the project. “It’s, like, normal. It’s the norm for teenagers to drink and take drugs. And for parents, I know (the PSA) is a lot, but in high school this would be nothing to anyone. This is so normal for people.”
Baker, who played ‘Meredith’ in the video and also wrote the production’s original narrative, has been involved with TAC since her freshman year of high school. She said TAC is planning on promoting the video “wherever we can.” It’ll be played during freshman-level health classes, Baker said, and TAC plans on asking Mount Vernon’s Premiere Theatre if it will play the PSA before movies.
“That’s their next step in this,” TAC advisor Lindsey Lamp said, “is actually creating a plan of how they are going to disseminate this throughout the community, besides using our social media pages of KSAAT and New Directions.”
With the help of Matt Starr and Kokosing River Productions, it only took one day to film the PSA. But Baker said the brainstorming process began long before that. She used what she’s learned through TAC, a club of 49 local high school students that promotes healthy relationships and lifestyles, and what she’s seen as a current student to craft the PSA’s storyline.
Starr said the group of around 20 individuals that helped make the video were “motivated” to bring their vision to light. He brought a professional film crew to shoot the PSA, which allowed the youngsters to get a behind-the-scenes look at the filming process.
“They embraced those techniques,” Starr said, “and I thought they told a wonderful story that was really quite sobering.”
TAC made a seven-minute PSA years ago, New Directions Executive Director Lori Jones-Perkins said, but it failed to capture multiple issues in an efficient time span. This video did just that.
“I was truly amazed by the students when I came onto the project, and all of the ideas they had and just watching them put it all together was truly amazing,” KSAA Program Coordinator Tina Cockrell said. “I was so, so glad to be a part of that.”
Baker and her fellow TAC members hope the PSA will not only benefit local youth, but also the community at-large. They hope it will make parents think twice about hosting alcohol-involved parties, and that it will make teenagers aware of the consequences of substance abuse.
“I think if we all come together and spread awareness,” Baker said, “that eventually everyone will be spreading awareness and no one will be involved in the drugs and alcohol.”
The path forward
After the presentation of TAC’s new PSA on Wednesday, the crowd discussed additional ways to educate the public on the seriousness of underage substance abuse.
WNZR’s Marcy Rinehart suggested that parents might not know the legal ramifications of serving alcohol to minors. It’s illegal to serve alcohol to anyone under the age of 21, even one’s own children, and the act is punishable by a $1,000 fine.
Jones-Perkins suggested that KSAAT conduct specific research pertaining to Juuling, as educators and parents in the audience agreed it has joined vaping among top youth health concerns. Jones-Perkins said teens tend to envision Juuling as different than smoking, when in reality it is just as harmful.
A Juul is an electronic device that turns liquid pods, typically containing nicotine, into vapor. The device looks like a flash drive and the vapor is typically fruit or candy-flavored, thus drawing the attention of teenage consumers.
Kathy Greenich, superintendent of the Knox County Career Center, said her district sees vaping and Juuling on-campus “almost every day.” The district treats it as a tobacco violation and allows students to either serve a suspension or go through a tobacco cessation class. She said most schools around the county have similar policies.
“We’re all dealing with it,” Greenich said.
From a legislative angle, Starr (who serves on Mount Vernon City Council) said Gov. Mike DeWine has expressed interest in raising the legal age for tobacco and e-cigarette sales to 21 years old. If this becomes a statewide law, Starr said, the city and county will not have to craft its own legislation.
KSAAT will hold its third annual community conference Aug. 6-7 at Mount Vernon Nazarene University to help raise awareness for drug and alcohol abuse. Guest lecturers will cover topics such as squirrel brain addiction, meth addiction, adolescent addiction, needle exchange programs, medical marijuana and more.
Emily Morrison, community relations coordinator at Mental Health and Recovery for Licking and Knox Counties, said over 300 people attended last year’s conference.
“It was a massive success,” she told the crowd. “We’re hoping to have another successful year.”
Despite the alarming statistics presented in the PRIDE study, KSAAT representatives believe Knox County is moving in the right direction. KSAAT Executive Committee Chair Nick Clark pointed out that 87 percent of students say their parents disapprove of teen drinking.
Through education, Clark said the community can become more aware of the consequences of teen substance abuse. It’s an uphill battle, but one that groups like KSAAT are willing to fight.
“This is a coalition of people doing really good work in our community, and we have to stay positive,” said Clark, looking around the room. “Otherwise we’ll be overwhelmed by the fight.”