December 14, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
While it may be impossible for young people to admit it, Michele Novak thinks many kids, including plenty in our community, really do look up to adults as role models.
That is why the substance abuse prevention advisor at Lake Orion High School, marking her tenth year in the district, thinks it is critical for parents and guardians to set clear boundaries and expectations for kids from an early age.
More importantly, she thinks some adults in our community need to stop treating the dangerous behaviors of our young people simply as part of growing up, especially when it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol. Even more concerning to her is when parents themselves exhibit such behavior, enabling young people to think it is okay to follow suit.
"Everything we teach in school about the dangers of substance abuse goes for naught because some kids follow their parents' model behavior," Novak said. "Take drinking and driving. Let's say the family goes out to dinner or a party, dad polishes off 5-6 drinks and then gets behind the wheel of the car. To his kid, that behavior seems okay, but it's not."
The high school counselor knows firsthand of other instances where kids have had obvious dependency issues that are negatively impacting their behavior and performance in school. During meetings to discuss the situation, the parents have accused her, teachers and administrators of targeting their kids. Sometimes these parents come to such meetings smelling of marijuana or alcohol themselves, she said.
"Parents can't simply chalk substance abuse today as a right of passage," Novak said. "There are real consequences now, starting with much more stricter laws. Plus it has been proven substance abuse – especially early onset usage – can lead to serious emotional issues and other trouble."
Novak's unique background gives her the credibility needed to stir people's attention.
She spent the first decade of her career as a police officer in Detroit. Her time there included working in the Special Alternative to Incarceration Bootcamp program for offenders 18-24 years-old, as well as the city's sex crime unit. She says she saw "everything" one could imagine and how little respect some people had for life and the nurturing of young people.
"The job of the police in Detroit is to protect people versus fix the problems that lead to crime," Novak said. "I realized early on that I wanted to try and make a difference in the lives of our youth, so I decided to get my counseling degree and work in a school."
When she joined the Lake Orion district, Novak was a substance abuse prevention advisor for kindergarten through twelfth grade. But, as the high school enrollment and its needs increased, she moved there. Today, in addition to her prevention activities, she also oversees the progress of 400-plus students, including those in the district's alternative education program.
Over the past couple of years, Novak says substance abuse in Lake Orion and elsewhere has increased. Not only does she think it involves lax parental supervision in some cases, but also the state's medical marijuana laws.
"The message this state is sending our kids is that marijuana is legal when, in actuality, the laws are very complex and narrowly define who can use it for medical purposes," she said. "If anything, this law makes marijuana more socially acceptable for both adults and kids."
Novak also thinks young adults today are under increased pressures compared to when she started in the district. For example, she knows there are kids whose families are in trouble financially due to the state's economic struggles in recent years. The students are working full-time to help their families pay basic bills, plus going to high school five days a week, she said. Some can handle it, while others struggle dealing with such situations, resulting in drug and alcohol abuse.
The counselor said there are a handful of signs parents can look out for if they are concerned with the possibility of their child falling victim to substance abuse:
1. A change of friends – it is one thing if a new friend or two enters the picture, but if one's child suddenly has a completely new set of friends and the parents do not know them well, then they better get to know them, Novak said.
2. A noticeable slip in academic performance – if a child who typically is a strong student suddenly lets his or her grades slipbadly and does not seem to care, that could be a warning sign, she added.
3. A general lack of motivation – teenagers like their space, but if they withdraw from family and friends on a continuous basis, or do not seem to want to do anything with them ever, it is time to ask a few questions, Novak said.
4. A drastic change in behavior – kids can be moody, but if they start to exhibit overly belligerent and defiant behavior to not just their parents, but also other adults, teachers and police, for example, then there very well could be substance abuse involved, she stressed.
5. A demand for money on a continuous basis - kids need cash to buy drugs and alcohol, Novak said, so they ask for it or steal it.
6. A new use of eye drops, which may be used to mask bloodshot eyes
or dilated pupils, or mouthwash/breath mints to cover up the smell of alcohol, Novak pointed out.
She also said prescription drugs, especially narcotics and mood stabilizers, are increasingly abused by today's young people. If adults notice such prescription drugs missing, it is time to ask questions or hide them better.
If parents suspect their child may be abusing drugs or alcohol and are looking for help, Novak suggests contacting her at the high school. There are a number of options and resources available for addressing the situation in a confidential manner. Parents can also contact Oakland County Office of Substance Abuse, at 248-858-0001.
But, she said, the first step parents can take in helping prevent such behavior is simply being positive role models for their children and their friends.
"I'd think all parents want their kids to grow up to be successful and responsible," Novak said. "They need to set an example for what they want their kids to be. If they don't display such positive behavior, then they may not get that from their children, either."