Communities That Care | Community conversation corners teens’ reasons for drug, alcohol use

In November I participated in a community conversation focused on drug and alcohol use by students in the State College Area School District. The group’s parents, teachers, professionals and other community members all had the same question: Why do youth use drugs and alcohol? While the group acknowledged it’s not a new question in the American dialogue, we wanted to examine how it is unique to our community.

The group accepted that teenage drug use is a nationwide problem and decided to focus the conversation on the causes and effects of drug and alcohol use specific to our community. We discussed the university atmosphere that pervades State College. State College is an academic town, where becoming an adult means obtaining a certain degree of achievement. It’s also a town where drinking is a form of entertainment. To the adolescent, trying to live up to our academic and social standards may be too much to handle. The message is that in order to grow up successfully in our town, one must succeed in school and maintain a lively social life.

Flourishing academically is one benefit of living in a university atmosphere, but there may be some unintended negatives. We are a town with a disproportionate amount of highly educated people. What happens to those students whose goals and aptitudes do not align with that of our university town? What if a student has little interest in academics? Does our town have opportunities for those who don’t plan to follow the academic track? How do we perceive those students?

Similarly, flourishing socially has positive and negative results. Connecting to peers is a basic need that everyone wants to fulfill. But how do we do that? Although there are myriad ways to connect with others, many of the activities considered to be “adult” involve alcohol consumption. Learning how to drink in moderation, when you are of legal age, could be considered a positive in our community. However, to the adolescent who by definition feels invincible and has a strong need to fit in, these social expectations have the potential to lead to some negatives. In our university town where drugs and alcohol may be more accessible, the temptation to drink can lead to greater consequences for our teenage students, such as binge drinking, alcoholism or drug addiction.

To a teenager who may be trying to discover his or her own personal identity, feeling that pressure to succeed academically and socially may be overwhelming. How do we perceive the students who do not fit into the expectations of our academic town? Is our culture one where drinking is socially accepted? What kind of effect does a drinking culture have on our teenagers? Now, what direction do we take the conversation?