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Another Voice: New direction in preventing youth substance abuse

By Terry O’Neill

The recent release of the report of the Assembly Minority Task Force on Heroin Addiction marks a sea change in our attitude toward drug addiction. Focusing on prevention and treatment, it recognizes that addiction affects all classes and is primarily a public health problem.

The report also highlights one of the most serious gaps we have allowed to persist in the area of prevention. We have no demonstrably effective program to reach high school-age kids. We do know what kind of program will work – a program that is based on a peer-to-peer approach – kids influencing kids. I have found such a program.

In 2010, at the invitation of Jonas Hafström, then ambassador from Sweden, I was introduced to Mentor International. Queen Silvia of Sweden established Mentor in 1994 in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Since then, the organization has grown to provide support to youth in over 80 countries reaching more than 6 million children.

Mentor International, together with Mentor Foundation USA and other Mentor organizations around the world, is today the leading international not-for-profit network empowering youth and preventing substance abuse. Its mission is to prevent drug abuse among young people while helping them identify and pursue their goals. Mentor views drug prevention and the success of our youth as a collective civil responsibility. Therefore, it partners with the business community, government agencies, schools and parents to create healthy and productive pathways for youth.

This past November, with funding from the Rip Van Winkle Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine and headquartered in New York’s Columbia County, Mentor was debuted in three Columbia County high schools. Some 1,300 students participated.

More recently, Mentor Foundation USA has announced that it is the recipient of a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation that will directly support the research efforts of “an innovative new substance misuse prevention program (i.e.: Mentor) in Columbia County, Hudson Valley, N.Y., that builds on the power of positive peer-to-peer messaging and peer-driven community initiatives.”

Make no mistake. Mentor has arrived in New York.

Mentor is taking a profoundly new direction in youth substance abuse prevention, one that is very much in line with the positive and progressive view that society’s problem with drugs is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Concerned parents, educators, treatment and prevention providers, private foundations and state and local elected officials should take a good look at Mentor and consider bringing it to their secondary schools.

Terry O’Neill is director of the Constantine Institute in Albany.