Opinion: Teens on mission to reduce overdose deaths

Opinion: Teens on mission to reduce overdose deaths

The caricature of addiction and overdose is some middle-aged guy shooting up under a bridge somewhere. In truth, the face of addiction and overdose could be your son, your daughter, your grandchild or their best friend.

While substance misuse and addiction have been present forever, in the past few years this issue has become far more complicated and deadly.

We lose tens of thousands of people, mostly teens and young adults, to overdose every year. And many of them did not even have a persistent drug problem. Oftentimes they just made the wrong decision on the wrong night. In 2020, deaths from overdose soared 30 percent above 2019. Today, many adolescents know three or four friends, classmates, or peers who have died from an overdose.

A lot of parents say, “When I was in college I drank and smoked some weed. I'm OK and my kids are going to be OK.” That's risky bet. Today's marijuana is 10 times stronger than it was a generation ago and it absolutely can be addictive. And then there are the opioids, which really were not around a generation ago. Furthermore, heroin is more available and cheaper today than at any time in our history. To make matters worse, a lot of drugs are laced with fentanyl a drug so lethal just a few grains can kill you.

It isn't “just” alcohol and other drugs that are the problem. In almost every instance there are other mental health or societal issues that accompany and typically lead to substance issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, bullying, eating disorders, body image issues, and low self-esteem.

If you know a teenager who is struggling with these feelings or these issues and has begun to find a “solution” in alcohol or drugs, I have an answer you probably have not heard of. It is simply called Generation S.O.S.

Generation S.O.S. (S.O.S. stands for “Sharing Our Stories”) is a unique community where teens can feel comfortable talking to each other about their struggles with mental health, social pressures, and substance use without stigma or shame. Generation S.O.S. teaches our youth things they don't hear anywhere else, certainly not in school and often not in talks with their parents.

Generation S.O.S has created a peer support community where teenagers who are struggling discover that they are not alone and that many others have similar challenges and can get through them by sharing their stories, learning coping skills, and supporting one another.

What is now Generation S.O.S. was born one Saturday afternoon several years ago in New York City. Six students overdosed and died in one high school community in a matter of months. A group of classmates needed help coping; drugs and addiction were ravaging not just their friends but an entire generation. The school's lack of response was striking, and the kids didn't know where to turn. So, they turned to each other and started talking about the crisis. This ultimately lead to the creation of Generation S.O.S in New York and over the past several years chapters and programs have been developed in Los Angeles, Miami and Fairfield County, home of its CEO, Jim Hood.

Generation S.O.S.'s mission is to prevent teen addiction and death from overdose. They focus on teens because 90 percent of the time the seeds of substance misuse, addiction, and overdose are planted during the teenage years. Today, experimentation with alcohol and other drugs begins at 12 and 13 and studies have demonstrated that the earlier experimentation begins, the greater the risk of addiction.

Generation S.O.S. invites young adult, sober speakers to share their addiction and recovery stories peer-to-peer. They routinely share that their personal journey began with mental health struggles, years before experimenting with alcohol or drugs. They describe a desperate need to “escape,” to numb the problem through drugs and alcohol. The speakers also share the painful lesson they've learned the hard way: drugs and alcohol don't eliminate emotional problems. The issues remain, and the only way to deal with them is to ask for help and do the hard work. The stories are raw, the anxiety and loneliness familiar. The message is simple and powerful: “We all feel anxious and isolated. Talk to a friend. Get help if you're struggling. But don't make the same mistakes I did.”

Generation S.O.S.'s highly diverse, 40-member Youth Advisory Board is the heart and soul of their organization. The teens work closely with founder Robin Aviv and Hood, who lost his son to an overdose in 2012. They are building leaders, teen changemakers, who are taking Generation S.O.S.'s peer-to-peer support system and bringing it not only to their high schools but to middle schools, as well.

For more information about this valuable resource, visit their website: https://www.generationsos.org/

Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/Weill School of Medicine.