Last year five young people died of heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley, according to stats from the SCV Sheriff's Station. But heroin isn't the community's only challenge when it comes to illegal or illicit drugs. KHTS News reporter Stephen K. Peeples is on special assignment, going behind the scenes, talking to SCV kids, parents and the front-line professionals, to investigate what’s really going on, why it’s happening, and what we as a community are doing about it. This is the second story in a series. Click here  for links to all the stories.
As community leaders told us in Part 1 of "It Takes a Village,"  heroin isn’t the only thing killing young people in the Santa Clarita Valley. They cited an explosion of prescription drug abuse as the fastest-growing and most widespread problem our village faces right now.
According to the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team, three young men died in January of suspected OxyContin overdoses (toxicology results are still pending).
“We’re trying to get a grip on the pills overdose situation — it was crazy in January,” Bob Wachsmuth of the JIT told us. “If those numbers were to continue, we’d have terrible statistics for 2012.”
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It’s an alarming trend. But what’s behind it? And pulling back for the larger picture, why do kids and young people get into drugs in the first place?
We asked local experts who work daily with kids in trouble about what they’re seeing and hearing. And we spoke directly with three young recovering addicts, all SCV residents, who were willing to share their experiences. They came forward with the hope that other local kids will use this information to help make better decisions than they made when they started abusing.
Mindy M. (pictured at right, center), age 27 and a Hart High graduate, grew up with a family of social drinkers, smoked pot at age 12, got hooked on prescription painkillers after a series of medical problems a few years later, and wound up abusing pills and eventually shooting heroin.
Veronica J. (left), 24, who just moved to the SCV from Pasadena, was raised by alcoholic parents, had her first drink at age 5, got drunk for the first time at 10, and was into pot, pills and hard drugs by her early teens. She’s been in and out of trouble with the law for the last seven years.
And Tyler G. (right), 17, a Canyon Country resident and Bowman High student, got into drugs because his older brother’s friends were doing them, and both he and his brother wound up strung out on heroin.
The trio joined this reporter at the KHTS-AM 1220 studios Saturday, March 3, for a 45-minute conversation. We’ll hear their chilling stories, and how they're doing in their recoveries, in their own words, next week in Part 3 of "It Takes a Village."
The Role of Self-Esteem — Or Lack of it
The reasons we heard for kids getting into drugs from all our interviewees — experts and recovering addicts alike — were numerous, often interrelated, often overlapping.
But the one that came up most often among the experts was low self-esteem.
A young person with little or no self-esteem or sense of self-worth is a crucible for emotional and psychological turmoil. Drug abuse is a symptom first, then can turn into one of the causes of low self-esteem. Same with depression, self-mutilation. Or joining a gang.
“There’s a vulnerability, an insecurity that kids have, and I think they feel that by replacing them with drugs or alcohol or promiscuity or conflict, it’s a way for them to control certain elements of their lives that they feel are out of control,” said Kim Goldman, executive director of the SCV Youth Project (pictured at left).
“It’s a way to validate who they are," she said. "If they’re doing drugs, being sexual or acting out in other ways, it’s a way for them to control their environment, and there are lots of kids that just don’t have the ability to ward it off. We (as parents) don’t teach them the tools, and we don’t have the ability to empower every kid to make healthier decisions.”
Not all parents understand the importance of self-esteem, or how to build it, how to repair it when it’s damaged — or, most significantly, how to not mess it up in the first place.
Some parents have their own self-worth issues dating back to their own childhoods, and are not providing positive examples for their kids to follow.
Helping children build the self-esteem they need to resist bad influences and thrive should indeed start with their parents at home — and early, said Alex Urbina (pictured at right), a transformational family life coach who’s worked with teens and parents for the past 15 years (and hosts the “Life Leadership” program Wednesdays on KHTS-AM 1220).
“I know this might sound harsh for people who take this out of context, but I'm going to say it anyway. I believe that we as parents are slowly killing our children,” Urbina said.
“I believe that when children are born, they're born purely magnificent, that they're the most powerful. And we as parents, (when our children are) between the ages of zero and 8, are not acknowledging them for the gift that they are and building them up," he said. "The way we’re dealing with life, we're slowly smothering their spirit. And so when we smother our children's spirit, they have low self-esteem.
“And that low self-esteem, the self-worth that they lack — they're looking to fill that void,” Urbina said. “And through wanting to fill that void and to be acknowledged for the amazing, powerful human being that they are, they're joining gangs to be loved and appreciated. They're using alcohol to fill the void, to numb themselves out. They're using prescription pills, heroin, cocaine — they're looking for anything external to fill the void and the incompleteness they feel about themselves. So, if you really want to get to the core of it, I think it's the low self-esteem and the lack of self-worth that our children have.”
Cary Quashen (pictured below), who heads the Action rehab centers for drug and alcohol addiction in the Santa Clarita Valley and throughout Southern California, works with young people 24/7, and told us he sees three kinds of kids in our village.
“No matter what kind of a parent we are, a third of all of these kids are going to do what they want to do — they're high-risk kids,” he said. “They're just going to live on the edge. That doesn't necessarily mean alcohol and drugs, but it could.
“The next group is just level-headed kids. They're going to go to school, they're going to stay away from drugs, they don't want to hear it, leave me alone. Good.
“The next group of kids — and these are the ones we really need to pay attention to — are what you call the ‘fence-sitters,'" Quashen said. “With supervision, support, structure, love and discipline, these kids are going to make good choices. With lack of supervision, lack of support, lack of discipline, these kids are going to follow the other kids, and we've got trouble there.”
Strong self-esteem helps young people, or people of any age, make healthier choices,
and keep what Quashen calls “personal contracts” with themselves when parents or other adults aren’t around.
“We say, ‘When I grow up, here are things I will never do. I'm not going to smoke cigarettes, I'm not going to smoke weed.’ And we mean them,” he said. “Somewhere, our contracts get lost. We walk into a room, somebody says, ‘Smoke this, it's a cigarette!’ Ninety-nine percent of addicts, that's the first contract they break. How do they clean that up? ‘It's only a cigarette; I'll never smoke pot.’ And they mean it.
“But they're hanging out with these cool kids, and somebody comes in the room and says, ‘Dude, it's only marijuana. It's not even a drug! It's natural, God put it there. Take a hit!’” Quashen said. “Most kids say no. But time after time after time, hearing it over and over again, we get desensitized. ‘It's only pot, it's not a drug.’ So we take our first hit.
"What did we do? We broke another contract," he said. "How do we clean that up? ‘I'll never use hard drugs.’ How long do you think before somebody says, ‘Hey dude, try this?’
“Heroin, opiates, cocaine — all are what I call “drugs of opportunity,’” Quashen said. “A kid goes to a party, 16 years old, he's already high. Smoked a little bit of weed, had a little bit to drink. If somebody says, ‘Smoke this.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘It's heroin, but you don't have to shoot it, just smoke it once. It's great, you'll love it.’ They're already high. They take their first hit.
"What did they just do? Forget contracts," he said. "They just put something in their body that made them feel different and better than anything they had ever felt before. How do you tell someone that's bad? That's what we're faced with.”
Quashen doesn’t think kids start using drugs just to medicate themselves. “That's a false statement. Kids use drugs because it's fun, because everybody else around them is doing it, and kids have what you call ‘herd mentalities.’ They do what everyone around them do. Now, people continue to use drugs to self-medicate, but that's not why they start. They start because everyone else around them is doing it.”
Supervision — or lack thereof — and the amount of time parents spend — or don’t spend — with their kids play a critical role, as Quashen mentioned earlier.
“What supervision? Seriously, what supervision?” he said.
“Let's say, if there's even a mom and dad living together, in most homes they're both at work," he said. "So what happens is, little Johnny goes to school. He's with his buddies eight hours a day. He comes home to a home usually when there's no one home. So, when you ask him who's there (with him), he says, ‘No one’ — that's so false, that's so far from true. His friends are there, if not in person, on Facebook or on his cell phone.
"So, we come home — and here's the really scary thing: How much time does a parent spend talking to a teenager a day? (A recent) survey says two to 10 minutes," Quashen said. "And it goes something like this:
“‘How was your day?’ ‘Cool.’
“‘How was school?’ “Good.’
“‘Any homework?’ ‘I've done it.’
“‘Are you hungry?’ ‘I ate.’
“And they're right back in their rooms, on their Facebook,” he said. “So, they're with their buddies 16 hours a day. They give us two to 10 minutes. You want to know why kids are using drugs? Think about it. Because they're always with their friends, and peer pressure’s at a high.”
What’s the solution? Quashen agrees with Goldman and Urbina: It has to start with parents at home.
“We really need to spend time with our kids,” he said. “We need to start this when they are young. We are responsible for our own kids. We need to educate them about drugs. We have to. Drugs will never go away.”
Next in Part 3:  In their own words, SCV young people Mindy M., Veronica J. and Tyler G. tell us why they started taking drugs, and share their experiences with addiction, rehab and recovery.