Is it time for an honest discussion about teen drinking?

By Bob Satnan Contributing Columnist

May 16, 2014

JoAnn Martin is tired of seeing memorial crosses at the side of roadways.

The administrator of the Pettis County Health Center believes we could reduce the number of roadside tributes to fatal crash victims if we were to have an open and frank conversation about underage drinking. And that conversation must include teens so we can understand what they know and believe about alcohol and its effects.

Statistics show that youths start consuming alcohol much younger than the legal drinking age of 21. But our societal expectation is that they have no experience with drinking until they reach that legal age, then they are expected to automatically know how alcohol will affect them and how to drink responsibly. When you consider that, it is completely irrational.

Martin said the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has laid out some goals to raise awareness of underage drinking.

“Their premise is to have a town hall meeting where everybody comes together and has a conversation,” Martin said. “But we know that trying to get a group of people together in our community can be a challenge. So we are looking at other creative ways to talk about helping parents and young people understand the risks of underage drinking.”

One of those methods is to get Smith-Cotton High School digital photography students to create a presentation illustrating their perceptions of alcohol and underage drinking. That presentation then could be used as a conversation starter at meetings of local civic groups, such as the Sedalia Lions Club or Rotary. Art teacher Michael Shukers is open to the concept, but there are a lot of details yet to be hashed out.

“How appropriate to take something to a meeting that kids have done, that said, ‘I went out and had a few beers with my friends, no big deal.’ And I think we have to be open to that,” Martin said, because owning up to the truth that teens are drinking is the only way to effectively cope with the issue and lay the groundwork for behavioral change.

Martin raised her daughter in Europe, where teenage alcohol consumption is the norm, and she admitted that experience does affect her stance on the issue. But she quickly adds that in Europe, you are not allowed to drive until you are 18, and even then it is a long, tedious and expensive process.

“We as a country have a very almost schizophrenic relationship with alcohol,” she said. “The DARE program talks about avoiding drugs and alcohol, and I think that is a good message for kids to get because unfortunately there isn’t a program that says, ‘How do you use alcohol in a responsible manner?’”

Martin isn’t advocating lowering the drinking age, but rather ensuring that young people know fully the ramifications of alcohol consumption and its effects on the body and brain. In effect, we teach our children to drive before we hand them the keys, and we should provide at least some level of instruction concerning alcohol use before midnight on their 21st birthday.

“Some people say never drink alcohol at all – wonderful, that is their choice. But we have it portrayed in the media and a lot of things kids see that somehow immediately at 21 you’re supposed to know how to handle alcohol, and that is craziness,” she said.

Beyond drinking and driving, another key concern is binge drinking. The message too many young people get is that they must drink until they can’t see straight in order to have fun. Alcohol lessens people’s control of faculties including reaction time, inhibitions and judgment; that leads to bad consequences and bad choices. And unfortunately, while alcohol awareness starts at about age 12, alcohol use frequently starts at age 15 or 16 – the time teens start driving.

Martin is hopeful this community conversation can start with children around that awareness age to begin having a positive impact. She said youths “want to be part of the group, we know that,” and peer pressure to drink or make other bad choices falls into that thinking. But once they get to be sophomores and juniors, “they are more comfortable within their own skin” and more likely to think and act independently.

“These young people are going to grow up,” Martin said, “If they start this behavior when they are teens, some of them wise up and realize this is not appropriate behavior, but some of them don’t. And they put themselves and many other people at risk.”

Key concerns are creating a structure and atmosphere where teens can speak frankly about their alcohol use and their perceptions of drinking without being ostracized or penalized. That will require parents, law enforcement and community leaders to open their minds and their hearts to finding solutions. And Martin stressed that there is no quick fix.

“It’s a community conversation that lasts for a while,” she said, “so I think where we are now is to plant the seeds before the kids go out for the summer.”

But before we get to that community conversation, Martin is hopeful that anyone who consumes alcohol will do just one thing: Pause to think.

“Take five or 10 seconds to have a conscious thought about your behavior,” she said. “Then you might not end up being a cross at the side of the road.”