In the 1980s, adults tried scaring teenagers away from using drugs with a 30-second television commercial featuring an egg frying in a hot skillet, accompanied by the ominous message: “This is your brain — this your brain on drugs.”
The simplicity of the anti-drug message then has been replaced today by more detailed and informative messages, including videos by teenagers at New Technology High School in Napa.
The videos are intended to help young substance abusers, as well as their parents, better understand the risk of taking drugs, drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana — the three most common substances that teenagers in Napa County overuse or become addicted to, according Aldea Children and Family Services, a nonprofit specializing in mental health.
“Those are the big three we’re working with,” said Alex Ochoa, an Aldea clinician and counselor. “Those are predominantly the ones we’re seeing the most with students.”
A 2013 Napa County Kids Survey, according to Ochoa, revealed 30-40 percent of local teens often turned to marijuana or alcohol.
The survey found among 11th graders, 29 percent had used marijuana and 34 percent had used alcohol at least four or more times in their young lives, according to Ochoa.
The numbers were even higher among teens at schools like Valley Oak High School and the Napa Court and Community Schools (Chamberlain and Liberty): 39 percent had used marijuana or alcohol four or more times.
Ochoa could not provide data on the use of methamphetamine among local teens. But he said the prevalence of the street drug was rising, based on what he has witnessed.
To help combat the problem of substance abuse among middle school and high school students, Ochoa spent the fall helping a class of psychology students at New High School, where he spends every Friday counseling teens on drugs and alcohol.
The students were tasked by teacher Andrew Biggs to develop short videos that explain what alcohol, marijuana and meth do to the human brain.
Biggs wanted his students to produce something that could be used in the community, and not be just another project-based learning assignment that gets graded and forgotten.
After talking to Ochoa during his weekly stints at New Tech High, Biggs learned that substance abuse was a struggle not only for the addict or alcoholic, but their families, too.
Moms and dads often tell experts at Aldea that they don’t recognize their sons or daughters once they start abusing. “That’s not my kid anymore!” Biggs said, paraphrasing the responses from parents.
“It’s not about their kids being evil or bad. It’s that these substances are actually changing the way their brains function,” he said.
With this information in hand, Biggs organized his psychology class into six teams. Each team was tasked with making a short video on one of the three big substance abuse problems, and gearing the material either towards teens or adults.
Junior Kaeli Stephens worked on the video for parents about meth addiction.
“It was supposed to be informative and help them understand what their child is going through and how best to deal with it,” said Stephens of her project, which involved four other students scripting, filming and editing it.
In the six-minute video, Stephens narrates about the human mind, including the importance of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends chemical signals between nerve cells and the brain causing happy feelings.
“Meth pretends to be dopamine,” Stephens says in the video, eventually leading to the deterioration of dopamine receptors, which can lead to brain damage and chronic depression.
The video also talks about the physical and health impacts of meth use: liver damage, acne, rotting teeth, and the loss of skin elasticity, creating wrinkles that can age a person, making them seem years older than they are.
Stephens group took the same approach as the other videos produced in Biggs’ class — to inform, not preach — believing the former will be more effective in reaching troubled kids.
“We wanted to stress not so much stay away from drugs because they’re bad, but more of, ‘Here’s what it’s doing to you, both physically and psychologically,’” said senior Jay Erhard, who worked on the video for teens about marijuana, “
Erhard said something akin to the 1980s approach of “Just Say No” has a way of going in one ear and out the other with people his age.
When parents tell kids not to do something, he said, “The first instinct is to go off and do that thing.”
“So for that reason,” he added, “we didn’t want to be, ‘Don’t drink or don’t smoke or don’t do meth.’ But more of if you’re going to, here’s what you need to know so you can be safe” and hopefully “stay away from it” altogether.
With the videos now finished, Ochoa said he and other counselors from Aldea intend to use them during their meetings with students in Napa and American Canyon.
“There’s a lot of teenagers using and not really understanding the effects of the different drugs,” said Ochoa.
Stephens said she enjoyed working on the videos because it gave her a chance to do something that could impact lives in the real world.
“We have other projects where you’re, ‘I did it. It’s done,’” she said. “But this is something where we got to take the information and create something directed towards a certain audience to help with a purpose we could get behind.”