Matthew G. Smith has some good news for parents who wonder what someone with an English and theater degree can do for a living: He’s been able to use his skills to help kids and adults avoid the pitfalls of addiction.
Smith, 46, of Derby, graduated in 1989 from Colgate University and landed a job a year later with Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, directing a kids program called “Super Buddy and the Drug-Free Alliance.”
He picked directing over acting, he said, “because I didn’t want to wear underwear on the outside of my pants.”
Smith went on to work almost two decades for the agency, mostly as public awareness and foundation director. In 2009, he was named executive director of Preventionfocus, one of 21 agencies in Erie County funded through the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
Among his concerns this summer: prevention of teen drug abuse, tobacco use and gambling.
“The biggest thing for me has always been facilitation of that conversation, the power of that dialogue, from parent to child, from a very early age: ‘I love you, I don’t want you to do drugs,’ ” he said. “ ‘Please don’t do drugs. If you break my rules, there will be repercussions and here’s what the repercussions will be.’ These are some of the major protective factors we can give a kid, and the good news is, it doesn’t have to be a parent.
“The world is what it is,” he said. “We can’t put our kids into a bubble. All we can do is arm them with information and skills to help them get through it to the best of their ability.”
The goal of agencies such as his isn’t to be the “Fun Police,” Smith said, but to encourage and teach people to steer clear of potentially destructive behavior.
“Prevention works, treatment is effective and people recover,” he said. “So we have to have all phases available for the people we serve.”
You’re at the front end of that?
Yes. We do some universal strategies, curriculum packages, where we go into area schools. … We give people information, we give them skills – like problem solving and goal setting, how to communicate well, manage stress – and the information about what’s OK to do and what’s less OK to do, as far as your health is concerned. We try to create environments where the safer and the healthier choice is easier, and therefore more likely. Ours is a field that is often measured in decades, not in moments, and sometimes in inches, not in miles.
The stuff we teach applies to whether you pick up a cigarette or not, or whether you throw a rock through a window or join a gang, or have unsafe sex or sass back to a teacher. All of the stuff applies. You can set people up for a lifetime of success if you can bolster the right skills. It’s these life skills, plus information, plus a nurturing environment that lead people to know that people care about them.
What topic areas are you dealing with?
Half of our resources here are devoted to those kindergarten through middle school age kid-curriculum packages, those model programs. This fall, we’ll use ‘Too Good for Violence.’ It’s puppets that share messages. It’s about peaceful conflict resolution – the basic framework of it – and it does such a good job at those things that you can also infuse some drug-related information, as well, because you want the kids to hear that. But it’s mostly about the skills at that age, the ‘I can be successful in school’ message.
Is there such a thing as an addictive personality and, if so, is that more environment or genetics?
There are people who have family histories of different types of disease and we encourage people to know those histories. If you have a family where you’re more susceptible to heart disease, you need to be aware, because it may be more beneficial to eat right, maintain the right weight and exercise because of that predisposition. Diabetes, substance abuse, addiction, same thing. We do see that as some people maybe being wired in such a way that they’re more likely to readily become addicted than others. If you are raised in a home where you’re seeing drugs done on the table from an early age, then you have both nature and nurture, so it’s harder to isolate.
People not getting help is a huge issue. Too many people are going untreated for mental health and for substance abuse and stigmas are at the root of a lot of that. Now is a moment for all these different causes to get on the same page. Compulsive gambling and substance abuse may be signs that something (more serious) might be going on. The answer is then do something. Get people help. That’s the right thing to do … not the scary thing to do, as opposed to looking the other way, pretending you didn’t see it, pretending you didn’t hear it, hiding it, expecting it’ll take care of itself, or dismissing it as OK. We do all these things all the time, and stigma is at the root of all these things.
Those concerned about a loved one with addiction issues is encouraged to call 1-877-8HOPENY.
On the Web: Matthew G. Smith talks more about his job and shares tips with parents on how to spot and address teen gambling at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh