Counseling Today, Features

Nation caught in meth’s grip — Campaign launched in Montana to educate teens

Angela Kennedy March 27, 2006

Crystal, crank, Tina, ice, glass — it’s all methamphetamine and, increasingly, it’s everywhere.

Last month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a report stating that admissions to treatment for methamphetamine abuse have increased significantly across the nation, moving from West to East. States in the Midwest and South, where meth rates were relatively low only a decade ago, are now experiencing high rates of treatment admissions. In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health issued three years ago, more than 12.3 million Americans indicated they had tried meth, and 1.5 million said they were regular users. The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration reported that it had seized 17,033 methamphetamine labs in 2004, an increase of 129 percent from five years earlier.

This widespread surge in meth use is affecting more than just addicts. Law enforcement agencies nationwide rank meth as the No. 1 drug they are battling today. Meth addicts are filling the U.S. prison system, while their children are flooding the social services system. Meth even affects the environment. For every pound of meth that is created (or “cooked”), as much as eight pounds of toxic waste are produced. In an effort to stem the tide of meth abuse, President George W. Bush on March 9 signed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which limits the retail distribution and sale of pseudoephedrine, a legal ingredient that is found in many cold medicines but is also an essential element for making meth.

Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive stimulant that dramatically affects the central nervous system. Clandestine laboratories easily produce the drug, using relatively inexpensive ingredients available at the local hardware store and pharmacy. Meth can be ingested, snorted, smoked or injected. Regardless of how it enters the body, the effects are the same: intense anxiety, nervousness, paranoia, mood swings and depression.

American Counseling Association member Brian Dew has studied the effects of methamphetamine use in Georgia and is presenting an Education Session, “Behind the Eyes of Methamphetamine Dependents: Critical Perspectives on Achieving and Maintaining Abstinence,” at the ACA/Canadian Counselling Association Convention in Montréal. “Atlanta has the fastest-growing rate of meth use in the country,” Dew said.

Dew, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University, and his research team conducted qualitative interviews with more than 70 recovering meth users. They were specifically interested in three things: how users defined being dependent, factors that impacted their decision to quit using meth and factors that contributed to their staying off the drug. Seventy-five percent of the interviewees were male, and they ranged in age from 18 to 53. The participants had maintained their sobriety anywhere from two weeks to eight years.

In defining their dependency on meth, many of the former users made the same observation: loss of control. They were unable to function while on the drug, and the factors that most influenced their decision to seek treatment were the harm done to family relationships and the loss of employment. Many also had mounting legal problems and were in failing health because of complications from HIV infection, which they had contracted during their drug use. The former meth users stated that family support was essential in their efforts to stay clean, as was the determination and dedication to make very significant lifestyle changes.

Many of those interviewed said treatment facilities were not viable options. “Their perception was that the treatment programs were not capable or knowledgeable of the meth problem here in Atlanta,” Dew said, “so therefore, they didn’t see treatment as an alternative. That has some implications on what we need to do as far as the community and education. That is a major finding.” He noted that longer term treatment is needed to help this specific population.

“One system that is working fairly well is the drug courts,” he said. “If you are found to be in possession and brought into the court system, you are bound to be in that system for 18 months.” During that time, Dew added, offenders are expected to pass urine tests and must attend mandated counseling sessions. “That keeps them clean longer than a month or six weeks,” he said.

Meth is unique, Dew said, in that it spans cultures, ages, sexual orientation and geographic location. “States need to recognize the need for research in this area,” he said. “Treatment programs are recognizing the need to specialize programs for meth dependents and their withdrawal systems. But a lot needs to be done.”

Counselors may request complete research findings and session materials distributed at the convention via e-mail at bdew@gsu.edu.

Montana Meth Project

Many people still remember the image: an egg sizzling, hissing and bubbling in a skillet as a voice-over pronounced, “This is your brain on drugs.” Or the boy next door telling his father, “I learned it by watching you!” Twenty years ago, these were edgy, provocative antidrug messages that targeted adolescents and parents alike. But with today’s Generation Wired teens, those messages come across as lame attempts at drug lectures. That’s why the Montana Meth Project is revamping the teen drug prevention and awareness genre by presenting gritty, harrowing, true-to-life commercials, billboards, magazine ads, posters and websites.

Founded in February 2005, the nonprofit organization’s primary objective is to significantly reduce first-time methamphetamine use among teens in Montana. The Montana Meth Project is also trying to raise awareness about the scale, depth and critical nature of the methamphetamine problem by mobilizing communities across the state to get involved in prevention, education and treatment efforts.

One out of five Montana adolescents ages 12-17 currently reports having close friends who use meth. The admission rate for methamphetamine/amphetamine use in Montana increased 520 percent between 1992-2002. With the majority of the state being rural, it busts the myth that drug use is more prevalent in urban areas.

In attempting to get inside the minds of teens, the Montana Meth Project developed the “Montana Meth Use and Attitudes Survey.” The online questionnaire provided rich insight, both qualitative and quantitative, into young people’s attitudes and behaviors related to methamphetamine. Additionally, the Montana Meth Project utilized a series of teen focus groups to gain more perspective. The information gathered was key to developing the project’s media blitz of hard-hitting, anti-meth messages. The campaign kicked off last

September and represents the largest cause-marketing effort of its kind in the state’s history. Initial survey data are available on the Montana Meth

Project website at www.montanameth.org; the organization is currently processing data collected in the second wave of the survey.

Peg Shea is executive director of the Montana Meth Project as well as a licensed addictions counselor and social worker. She previously served as executive director of Western Montana Addiction Services and as program director of Turning Point in Missoula. Shea has been working in the field of addictions and mental health for more than 28 years.

Shea said the organization’s campaign is different from most other anti-drug messages in that it views meth use as a consumer marketing problem. Basically, she said, it boils down to the fact that most kids who try meth don’t really know what it is or understand what they are getting themselves into. In the last six months, the Montana Meth Project has purchased 25,000 minutes of TV commercial airtime and 25,000 minutes of radio airplay in addition to numerous billboards and posters. “I think we have been successful in raising the dialog about methamphetamine and the horrific nature of the drug,” Shea said.

The multimedia ads are just one facet of the project’s anti-meth crusade, which also includes community action and public policy. “I travel around the state to talk to anybody and everybody about the campaign and deepen the conversation on meth addiction, prevention and awareness,” Shea said. “I speak to middle schools, high schools, businesses, service clubs, PTAs, churches — whoever will invite us to have a conversation about our project, our product and our strategies.” Since last October, she has averaged approximately three presentations a week, speaking to more than 10,000 individuals at 75 different venues.

“This is a very youth-informed campaign,” she said. “We learned from the focus groups and surveys that kids don’t want lectures by adults. They want to hear from other kids telling their stories. They told us in almost a daring way, ‘If you do a television commercial, it has to be edgy. It has to catch our attention and focus because we are a pretty media-savvy group of kids.’ So that’s why you see what you see. Universally, the feedback from the kids is that the ads are a home run, that the television ads, in particular, get their attention. Even though they find some of the ads disturbing emotionally, they watch them.”

In fact, Shea said, many of the teens are so taken by the TV spots that they instantly recall the names of the ads and recite the lines word for word. “They can literally describe the actors and actresses, the scenes, language, the take-away messages,” she said. “That recall is what we are shooting for.”

The Montana Meth Project continues to collect feedback and is further refining the campaign later this month with a new series of ads. Shea encourages other states to take a more aggressive stance with their anti-drug programs and hopes the Montana Meth Project will be viewed as a template for those changes. “If another state wants to replicate this program, that would be great — most importantly, great for that state,” she said. “The impact that this has had on increasing awareness and communication is just phenomenal. I know for certain that parents and kids are talking about methamphetamine because these teaching moments are in their face.”

For more information about the Montana Meth Project, visit www.montanameth.org. The project’s sister site, aimed directly at teenagers, is at www.notevenonce.com. Counselors and other interested parties can download the print ads, commercials and radio messages on both sites for free. All the ads may be viewed, aired and reproduced in any forum, with the exception of paid media outlets. For example, any school may air the commercials for students, but the commercials cannot run on another state’s TV network or cable station.

Caitlin, 22

Caitlin is well known in Montana. People hear her voice on the radio in between pop songs and traffic reports. But she’s not a local disc jockey; she’s one of the many voices of meth. As a former meth addict, she volunteered her story to be aired as one of the Montana Meth Project’s four radio segments.

At the age of 15, Caitlin was a normal teen with loving parents and lots of friends. She was an above average student who played soccer, volleyball and basketball. Like many of her peers, she had occasionally experimented with alcohol and marijuana, but she describes herself as “a good kid.” One day at lunch, however, her drug experimentation took a sinister turn while in the back seat of a friend’s car.

“(My friend) pulled out this little baggie of powder and asked me if I had ever tried it,” Caitlin recalled. “I had no idea what it was. I asked her, and all she said is that it would make me feel really good and excited. So I did it, and I felt on top of the world — fantastic. Little did I know that was methamphetamine.”

From that moment on, her world shifted. Caitlin began asking around school for more of the drug, which was nonchalantly referred to as “speed” by many of the students. “For me,” Caitlin said, “it wasn’t cocaine, which kind of had a scarier sound to it. I wasn’t informed about meth and what speed was. So I thought it wasn’t that bad.”

In fact, she thought it was pretty good at first. She was able to concentrate harder in school and do her schoolwork twice as fast as before. But her casual use quickly turned into full-blown addiction within a few short months. To score more meth, she withdrew from her social groups and started to hang around people who sold and cooked the drug. With the drug now readily available to her, it began to take control of her life. Her addiction quickly escalated from snorting the drug to smoking it. She and her new friends would do meth before, during and after school, but somehow she managed to keep playing sports and passing her classes. Because she was at least semifunctional at school and at home, Caitlin’s parents were oblivious to what was happening to their daughter.

“The last thing on their minds was that I would possibly be doing drugs,” Caitlin said. “It just wasn’t in the cards for my life. It wasn’t in their head that this would ever possibly be something I would be involved in.” Her parents did notice a difference in her attitude and behavior, Caitlin said, but because she had been diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder prior to her drug addiction, they associated the changes with her mental conditions.

Caitlin became a skilled manipulator to hide her habit and obtain more drugs. She constantly fed excuses to her parents. All too soon she was six months into her addiction; for the last half of that time she largely did meth alone every night in her room.

“(Meth) makes you want to really focus on a certain task and do it for hours and hours,” she said. “I liked to do it alone so I could do my own thing. I would draw or spend three hours slowly putting on make-up. I would pick at myself — at my face, my legs or arms — thinking there were things in my skin.” Caitlin would also meticulously clean her room and bathroom. She would do her homework but not really get much accomplished because she would fixate on perfecting her handwriting rather than on what she was writing about. “It’s super-concentrating on silly little things for long periods of time,” she said.

Meth is odorless, so it was easy for Caitlin to smoke it in her bedroom without getting caught. She often stayed up all night doing the drug, so she began to fall asleep in class. “All of the changes were happening, but I could care less,” she said. “I could care less about my family or my friends, school — all I cared about was the drug. How am I going to get it and how am I going to pay for it?”

At that point, an anonymous student went to the school counselor and informed her that Caitlin was a meth addict. Her parents were called in to meet with the school staff. That afternoon when Caitlin returned home, her parents confronted her about the counselor’s accusations. “I denied the entire thing,” she said. “Meanwhile, I was coming down off of it (meth) and I actually fell asleep in the middle of (our conversation).”

While she was passed out, her parents searched her room and found dozens of small empty baggies, burnt tinfoil and several empty lighters. With the drug paraphernalia as solid proof, they had to accept the fact that their only child had a drug problem.

Caitlin was sent to an outpatient program for six months and attended 12-step meetings. She stayed clean the entire six months, but the very day she was released from the program, she met up with her old friends and got high. “I wasn’t planning on using again is the funny thing,” Caitlin said. “I really liked the 12-step meetings. Being clean was feeling good and things weren’t so crazy, but I just really loved the drug and the way it made me feel. I started all over again.”

For the next nine months, Caitlin had a daily drug habit. She conned her parents with a series of lies. Her athletic build disappeared as she lost more than 30 pounds in a matter of weeks. Her face and legs broke out with sores, which she covered with excessive make-up and clothes. Now a senior in high school, her grades began to plummet, and for the first time she was failing classes.

Even with all the telltale signs of drug use, Caitlin found ways to explain everything away to her parents. She was seeing a counselor on a regular basis for her ADD and depression, but she never disclosed anything about her drug habit. “I had all these excuses,” she said. “It sounds so stupid (of my parents), but they are actually really smart, educated people. They still wanted to believe that I was clean. And I was a crazy manipulator. I could talk them into anything. I’m breaking out because I bought a new kind of make-up. I’m losing weight because I’m on a new diet. I’m not doing well in school because of the ADD, and the senior level work is just really hard. I’m depressed, so it’s making me sleep and I’m on this new medication that makes me tired. Those are the reasons — I’m not doing drugs again.”

She even went as far as daring her parents to drug test her. “I was living this one big lie,” Caitlin said. Her parents bought into that lie, at least for a little while. But her grades were slipping so much that it appeared she might not graduate. That’s when her father confronted her again about using drugs. This time Caitlin didn’t deny it, although she immediately regretted telling him the truth and left the house to go get high.

Acknowledging that outpatient treatment programs wouldn’t work for her, Caitlin was sent to a wilderness treatment center, where she spent the next five weeks confronted by the elements of a Utah winter. Her next step was another inpatient treatment center for five months. While in treatment, Caitlin was approaching her 18th birthday, so she was given intense counseling in the event she elected to leave on her own. Instead, Caitlin signed herself back in as an adult. She was determined to stay clean and even earned her high school diploma while in the treatment center.

Now, five years later, she is still sober and has earned a degree in social work. She is a drug addictions counselor at a residential treatment facility in Missoula and has applied to a master’s program. Her journey of addiction is a profound one, and she is using her experiences to help those like her — the “normal” kids.

“Many parents think that their kid isn’t going to do meth,” she said. “Little Jane over there who gets straight A’s and plays basketball, she’s never going to do it. But I was that girl. People need to be constantly aware that anybody can do it. There are no stereotypes of what kind of kid will do meth. It can be any kid.”

While working for the treatment center, Caitlin was approached to tape the radio spot for the Montana Meth Project and agreed. “A big part of my story is that I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “I had no clue what it was. I was totally uneducated and uninformed about meth. These commercials will help present an awareness that I didn’t have. Hopefully these kids will take this message, and if they are ever presented with meth, they will be able to make the right decision.”

Caitlin believes that if she had only known more about meth that day at lunch — if she had seen or heard anti-meth messages such as the ones being presented by the Montana Meth Project — her life might have been different.