The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has declared April as Alcohol Awareness month. We spoke to an NCADD affiliate in Danbury, Connecticut about a highly effective program they ran to change the perception of underage drinking in their community.
Alcohol Awareness Month was established in 1987 by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) to help reduce the stigma so often associated with alcoholism by encouraging communities to reach out to the American public each April with information about alcohol, alcoholism, and recovery.
An affiliate of NCADD, the Midwestern Connecticut Council on Alcoholism (MCCA) in Danbury, Connecticut has been running a year-long campaign centered on educating young people about the dangers to the brain of drinking while a teenager, despite the acceptance of underage drinking in their community. “It’s 21 for a Reason. Underage Drinking Damages Your Brain” is a campaign that seeks to change the environment in MCCA’s corner of the world and has been getting results. Terry Budlong, Director of Prevention Services in Danbury, explains: “An environmental strategy seeks to change the entire culture, the entire way people look at something, which is what we wanted to do with underage drinking in Danbury.”
MCCA is willing to go big and small when reinforcing their message such as: “We have used billboards, ads in buses, and PSAs on local radio. And, we are constantly trying to find more ways to keep the message in front of people in the community. We also use presentations to students. We’ll bring young people in recovery into a civics class or other forum. We can do it in the style of a panel and keep it informal, let people talk about recovery and other related topics, almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. That small format is an opportunity—it allows young people to open up and keeps it conversational.”
MCCA also provides information about the effects of underage drinking, including long-lasting affects on brain development—the human brain is still developing into the early twenties. Alcohol use in the teens can cause learning problems and contribute to increased high risk behaviors due to a corresponding lack of prefrontal cortex development, which occurs subsequently in people in their twenties. Alcoholism and drug addiction are chronic, progressive diseases that are genetically predisposed and fatal if untreated. But people can and do recover. It is estimated that as many as 20 million individuals and family members are living lives in recovery.
MCCA did surveys in 2010 and 2013 to measure attitudes and behavior about underage drinking in the Danbury community. These surveys demonstrate that MCCA and the “It’s 21 for a Reason” campaign has driven significant change—including a three percent drop in alcohol use in the previous 30 days and a statistically significant five percent drop in binge drinking. But the best news was the perception of risk from consuming alcohol by high school students. In 2010, 61 percent of high school students felt drinking was risky; by 2013, 78 percent thought it was risky behavior. That is an enormous change—an environmental change, truly.
We asked Terry Budlong what she has learned about how to be effective in changing people’s minds about alcohol, and she said, “Well, you need to engage all three groups—students, parents, and the community, including schools. And you must absolutely convince parents that there is a concern here, because in the end it is parents who, willingly or not, provide most of the access to alcohol by underage kids. They get it from their parents or take it out of the refrigerator in the garage. And parents are also most persuaded by evidence that early drinking harms brain development.”
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