MONTICELLO – Cristin McMullen knows that not every student in the Monticello School District is using drugs or alcohol. But as a prevention specialist at the Piatt County Mental Health Center, a former teacher in the Monticello School District and the parent of a former student, she has a pretty good idea that there are a number of students in the district that use or abuse alcohol and drugs.
An Illinois Youth Survey compiled by the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Center for Prevention Research & Development, revealed that 19% of Piatt County eighth graders had used alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants or marijuana during the past year. By 10th grade, that number had risen to 37%. By the time they were seniors in high school, 58% of the students reported they had used at least one of those in the past 12 months.
The report was done last spring, said Monticello Middle School Principal Mark Hughes.
“There is a rise in youth using alcohol and marijuana and we see a rise in youth using with their parents,” he said.
The most common substance was alcohol.
McMullen was one of five featured expert panelists at an event hosted by the ROSC (Recovery Oriented System of Care) Coalition for the recovery community of Piatt County.
The ROSC Council was formed about 18 months ago with the purpose of reducing stigma of those coping with substance use disorder, reducing barriers to treatment, and establishing recreational activities of families and individuals in the recovery community.
Also on the panel were Narain Mandhan, Chief Medical Officer and Addicitionist from Kirby Medical Center; Dan Burkybile, Director of Pharmacy at Kirby Medical Center; Jamie Porter, clinical director at the Piatt County Mental Health Center; and Piatt County Sheriff Mark Vogelzang.
While youth use was a major focus of the panel, substance abuse is an issue for all ages, Vogelzang said.
“Last year, we had two overdose deaths and we have had one already this year,” he said.
The survey, which was taken in 2022, indicated that in the 30 days prior to the survey being taken, 3% of eighth-graders had used alcohol, 21% of 10th-graders and 35% of seniors. 11% of 10th-graders and 18% of seniors had used alcohol.
“I am seeing a big shift in lots of teenagers who party and experiment with drugs,” Porter added. “I am seeing a lot more younger folks who are using marijuana and pills as a coping mechanism. They don’t know who to talk to. They are athletes, in youth groups, go to church and in all of the clubs, but they are still struggling. They are overwhelmed and many start with marijuana because that takes the anxiety off.”
McMullen shared stories of her own family’s struggles with addiction and said that it is becoming too easy for youth to get access to drugs and alcohol.
“Some of the parents open the door to the refrigerator and offer beer to their kids and their friends,” she said. “Some share their marijuana with them.”
Stigma a concern
When asked to identify hurdles to recovery, several panel members mentioned “stigma” as one of the main issues.
“Stigma and transportation to treatment,” Vogelzang said. “Lots of times, after an arrest, someone is willing to make a change and if possible, we need to get to them right away with a counselor. If we wait a week, or even a day sometimes, they might change their mind, so it is important to have counselors be able to come to the jail to speak with people.”
Mandhan added that the person suffering from substance abuse issues, may not be the only one who needs assistance.
“We also work with family and job support as well,” he said.
“Once we figure it all out and figure out what they need, we can give them options.”
Burkybile is also the head coach of the boy’s soccer team at Monticello High School.
“I went to high school here and we have always had a great chemistry program at Monticello and still do,” he said. “In my pharmacy job, I study how drugs work and so when I look at substance abuse, I look at it from that angle. For students, they are always looking about how to be better in school, and playing soccer. We don’t rise to the level of our goals, but instead, we fall to the level of our systems. So the key is to develop systems that set you up for a level of success.”
McMullen first-hand experiences
McMullen said that youth in Monticello have been using drugs and alcohol for years. She cited a party that a family member attended and when she found out about it, she entered the home where marijuana, alcohol and opioids were being used.
“I know because I had access to my son’s social media and phone,” she said. “There was proof that students – good kids – athletes, great students, students with great futures ahead of them, were using and drinking. When someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, it is a nightmare, but you can’t wake up.”
Mandham said education is an important part of helping the substance abuse problem in Piatt County.
“We have to educate our residents about the dangers and the stigma,” he said.
“Be involved and find ways to start the conversation so you can know when someone is struggling in some way and get them connected to counseling,” Porter added.
“Trust your instincts,” McMullen said. “I know some parents had more fun with their kids than I did when they shared marijuana or drank with them. But that’s not good for them in the long run. And demonstrate grace for people in recovery because they work hard at it every day and they deserve our encouragement rather than our judgement.”
“We live in a great community with a lot of great resources,” said Tony Kirkman, executive director of the Piatt County Mental Health Center. “ROSC was created to reduce the stigma of individuals in recovery, to reduce access issues, and to create some recreational activities for a sober community.”