LOWER TOWNSHIP — Elvis Lynch used to spend about $300 a week on marijuana and alcohol, but after he got treatment for substance-misuse issues, the 18-year-old found a better use for his money — and his time.
“I plan on making music and going to college,” Lynch said. “I say I got my glow back.”
During a time of intense focus on addiction, mental health providers and substance-misuse recovery centers are setting their sights on treatment for youth drug users. Experts say to do that, communities need more providers who offer youth-specific services.
“It’s sad, because it’s true that adolescent treatment is sorely ignored,” said Dorene Dreher, spokeswoman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in New Jersey.
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Lynch, of Lower Township, has been clean of all drugs for nearly five months after spending four months in Families Matter’s THRIVE program, which provides free counseling and treatment for teens struggling with substance use.
The Cape May mental health provider launched the program in November with funding from the state Department of Children and Families and gets referrals from courts, schools, counselors and family members.
It joined a handful of South Jersey organizations that offer youth-related programs — but not all are free.
Teens and parents are often supplied with a lot of drug-prevention education, but still, 39 percent of high school seniors nationally have used marijuana at least once in the past year and more than half of seniors have consumed alcohol, according to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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Only a small percentage of people who use marijuana move on to harder drugs, but most people addicted to substances such as cocaine, heroin and opioids reported first misusing marijuana, alcohol or both, data show.
Lynch was one of THRIVE’s first participants when he was court-ordered to attend a treatment program after getting into trouble while under the influence of marijuana, alcohol and sometimes oxycodone. He said he drew the line at heroin.
“One day, I got a call from my cousin who told me a friend I used to smoke with all the time had died. I said, ‘Of what? You can’t overdose from weed,’” he said. “But it wound up he moved on to heroin. When people were shooting up in front of me, I said, ‘This isn’t for me.’”
About 12 percent of people who died by overdosing in New Jersey in 2015 were younger than 25, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To address substance-misuse issues in younger populations, NCADD has a grant to start screening and intervention at schools, Dreher said. But, she asked, once those methods identify teens with substance-misuse issues, where do they send them?
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Pat Campbell, director of Families Matter, said the youth program is designed differently from adult programs to cater specifically to teens and the issues they face at school, at home or as juvenile offenders.
Lynch was required to undergo drug testing and attend one-on-one counseling sessions, group therapy and family therapy in THRIVE. The outpatient program also offered field trips, guest speakers and other activities.
Someone who is currently in state drug court talked to the teens about how his drug use led to rehabilitation, jail, unemployment and other serious issues.
“We told them it only gets harder the longer you do this,” said Ernesto Bailey, a certified alcohol and drug counselor at Families Matter. “We wanted to keep (Lynch) and others aware of what could happen and what was going on around them.”
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After Bailey gained Lynch’s trust, counseling sessions helped the high schooler open up about some deep-rooted issues he had never talked about before. The two also focused on Lynch’s positive activities, such as writing his own rap music.
Lynch said he is inspired by Eminem, who has rapped about his own struggles with addiction.
Coming into the program, untrusting and doubtful treatment would change his lifestyle, Lynch said he eventually realized he couldn’t continue to go home high and drunk every day, on the brink of dropping out of high school.
He graduated with a 3.8 GPA, is attending a federal work program in Maine, where he will spend as long as a year learning carpentry, and will get about $40,000 toward college, which he intends to take full advantage of.
Lynch said he hasn’t given up all his friends who still smoke weed, but said he isn’t tempted now to use with them. Because he is clean, he now has a job and saves his money or uses it to buy things he wants and needs, such as food, a new watch or clothes.
“My friends would rather smoke, but for me, I got my head on straight,” he said.