With new school year, student adviser is busier than ever
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Drug and alcohol counselor Jessica Conrad has been busy since the start of the school year.
She spends four days a week at the high school and one at the middle school, educating young people about the danger of substance abuse and imparting knowledge about life skills that could prevent drug use.
Conrad presides over sessions in health classes that provide instruction about drug, alcohol and substance abuse, adolescent brain changes, stress management, healthy and unhealthy coping skills, family and relationship stress and succeeding in environments where there is history of addiction in a family.
“Students may be of higher risk if there is addiction in the family, if they have transferred into the district and if they have mental health issues, including anxiety and depression,” she said. “These groups tend to be at more risk of using. Most of the time, drug or alcohol use is the result of something going on mental health-wise. They don't have the coping skill and they'll use a drug to not feel something.”
Health teachers provide a unit of instruction on mental health, drugs and alcohol. The students also have access to a health and wellness coordinator who teaches relaxation skills, mindfulness and breathing exercises.
Conrad also presides over gatherings in which outside speakers, experts and peers talk about addiction and recovery.
The last week of October will be “Red Ribbon Week,” which promotes a healthy, substance-free lifestyle. The ribbons will raise awareness about substance abuse and serve as a symbol that the wearer has taken a pledge against taking drugs.
There will be a poster contest and tulips will be planted as a symbol of hope. There will also be an alcohol awareness month and a homecoming event around the theme of having fun without using substances.
This is Conrad's fourth year at the high school, which also has a mental health counselor this year.
She meets with students individually and in groups geared toward high-risk populations, including students new to the district, those dealing with grief and people with family members who have overdosed.
Behavioral problems can be an early indicator of the potential for substance abuse.
“Anybody who gets in trouble in the building, those kids get referred to me for counseling,” she said.
She has seen a lot of students with issues already this year.
“We've had a lot of referrals first thing,” she said. “This year's been busy. People at school are becoming more and more aware and are recognizing when kids are using.”
Other times, young people approach her directly and ask for help.
“I love working in the schools,” she said. “I get more information about students than if I were just to see them in my office.”
High school and middle school are stressful times for many students.
“For this community, there is so much going on,” she said. “It's nice that they can come and talk to me and they don't have to worry. I am somebody to trust.”
Conrad said she did an internship in drug and alcohol counseling while attending New England College, and decided this could be a career path for her.
Then, on Oct. 22, 2010, her brother-in-law, who was in pain from a back injury, took some fentanyl left over from medical treatment of a late grandparent. He was also drinking beer. He never woke up.
“He was 25 years old and had his whole life ahead of him,” she told students at an assembly about drug use. “That was something that never needed to happen. It wasn’t his intention to die. That’s something that impacted his whole family for the rest of our lives. He will never be there to be an uncle to my little girl.”
The Laconia School Board on Tuesday had a first reading of a policy on teaching about alcohol, drugs and tobacco use.
Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said the policy codifies procedures that are already ongoing in the district.
The policy calls for the students and parents to get information about drug and alcohol counseling, including a list of counselors and treatment resources.
“The district shall provide age and developmentally appropriate drug and alcohol education to pupils based upon the needs of the pupils and the community, as a component of the kindergarten through grade 12 health education program,” the policy states. “An evidence-based prevention program, approved by the superintendent, may be used for this purpose.”
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