Janice Lynch Schuster is a poet and artist living in Annapolis.
The last of my six children will graduate from the Anne Arundel County Public Schools system in 2020 — the end of a 25-year-long sojourn as a parent who has watched superintendents, fads, teachers and trends come and go. It took several years for me to recognize that while some were simply the whims of the times, others really had the potential for changing and saving lives. Among these, my favorite was always the mandatory fifth-grade week of water-safety/drown-proofing at the county pools. In a county with about 500 miles of shoreline, this has always seemed like an act of brilliance. Another such act seems to have occurred with the launch of a new program, Screening Teens to Access Recovery (Star), for the county’s 12 high schools.
The idea is to give kids who have substance use issues access to treatment programs they might not find on their own: addiction and mental health services. The program is modeled on the county’s Safe Stations program. With Safe Stations, anyone can walk into a county firehouse or police station to ask for help with an addiction.
With Star, students who are concerned about their own alcohol or drug use can ask the school nurse for help. The nurse will use a telemedicine app called Doxy.me to connect the student in a confidential call to a designated therapist at the health department. The therapist, who is part of a clinical team, screens the student before recommending the appropriate level of care. At the student’s request, the therapist will contact the parents. The therapist can make a “warm handoff” by calling the treatment program to introduce the student to it. The therapist follows up within three days with the student, if requested.
School system spokesman Bob Mosier said, “Of course, teenagers won’t do anything you want them to do.” To counter this well-known fact of parenting, Mosier said the program was set up so that anyone could recommend it to a student, including classmates, coaches, teachers, office staff or administrators. A critical point is that students who ask for help will be supported, not penalized.
“Each high school will present Star in a way that works for its students. We’ll have posters from the board, but the schools can present it in advisory lessons or however the principals feel is best.
“And this program is not taking any additional resources. . . . If it can help even one student, or save even one life, it will have been worth it,” Mosier said. “We want students to know that Star is a safe, friendly, comfortable place to get help.”
The county Health Department spent nearly a year vetting resources, ensuring that programs claiming to help adolescents offer best practices and appropriate services. Octavia Guilbault, a licensed counselor who supervises Star within the Health Department’s adolescent and family services unit, said that a certified addictions counselor called every program and visited most. All are based in the county, and most accept some form of insurance.
Guilbault added that it was difficult to find programs that accept uninsured teens. From my years writing about behavioral health, I know that ongoing shortages of treatment beds and child and adolescent psychiatrists are a constant challenge.
Every aspect of Star struck me as being so carefully thought out and planned that I wish it success. I asked Mosier and Guilbault if the program announcement had run into the cruel-hearted “not-my-tax-dollars” comments I’d seen when county police first announced that they would carry Narcan to reverse opioid overdoses. Both said that feedback has been positive so far.
I wondered if any parents had objected, as if offering to prevent addiction could somehow trigger it. I was thinking of the recent backlash when the county decided to offer a course in global culture, and some people had papered cars in a high school parking lot with warnings about “brainwashing” children.
Perhaps our schools have reached an “if you build it, they will come” moment. A sad reality. A pressing need. Could this program have helped the too many young people I’ve known and loved who struggled with addiction? Could it have spared my children and their friends from later troubles? I cannot second-guess the past, but I surely hope for the future. I see this program as a life preserver for the hundreds of miles of treacherous time today’s teens encounter. May they grab it.