Conference on teen drug use set for Oct. 25


The Rhode Island Student Assistance Services will host its second annual conference focusing on marijuana and prescription drug use by teens.

The conference, entitled Strategies that Work: Teens, Marijuana and Prescription Drugs, will take place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Friday, Oct. 25, starting with registration and breakfast buffet at 7:30 a.m., and is designed for professionals in the field of substance abuse and mental health.

“We decided to focus [on marijuana and prescription drugs] because those two are on the rise,” said Sarah Dinklage, executive director of RISAS, which is headquartered in Warwick. Dinklage explained studies have shown that underage drinking and tobacco use have been on the decline, but the same is not said for teen marijuana use and prescription drug abuse. “Some people have used the word epidemic,” said Dinklage.

She believes the increased use of those two substances by young people is due to the perception of harm being relatively low because of discussions of legalizing marijuana and the availability of prescription drugs in some instances.

“When people don’t view a drug as harmful, use goes up,” she said.

Hopefully, the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Kevin Hill, can show the substance abuse and mental health professionals in the audience how to change that perception. Dinklage explained that Hill is an addiction psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. and treats those suffering from marijuana addiction.

“He really wants to help people understand marijuana, contrary to what most believe, is a dangerous drug,” said Dinklage.

Following the keynote address, guests will have the opportunity to attend two workshops run by experts in the field during the conference. Workshops include:

l Dying to Try It & Don’t Have Time for the Pain featuring Dr. John Femino

l Crossing The Cultural Divide: Working with Latino Youth and Their Families with Dr. Lynn Hernandez

l Youth in Recovery, Youth Panel presented by Fay Baker

l Treatment of Adolescent Marijuana Users – What is Working with Dr. John Rodolico

l Identifying and Treating Co-Occurring Disorders presented by Pamela Messore, LICSW, LCDP

l What is SBIRT and Why Use It by Joe Hyde

“Those are filling up,” said Dinklage about the workshops for next week’s event. “All of the folks we have identified [to lead workshops] are experts and we are thrilled to have them.”

Dinklage said that the two most popular workshops are the ones presented by Rodolico, who also works at McLean Hospital, and Femino.

“He’s got a great reputation,” said Dinklage of Femino, a well-known Rhode Island doctor. “And it’s [his workshop] about prescription drugs, which is a hot topic.”

In addition to professionals in the field, all of the RISAS counselors who work in 18 school districts in Rhode Island will be attending.

RISAS was formed in 1987 as a school and community-based substance abuse prevention and early intervention program. Dinklage said the program is “user-friendly” for students seeking help with addiction problems or those with risk factors that could lead to substance abuse. She said that a counselor is available in the secondary schools in districts with the program, including all six Warwick secondary schools, and students can walk in to the office or be referred by a concerned friend, teacher or administrator.

“Most of our referrals come from students themselves,” said Dinklage.

Counselors are contracted to 19 school districts in Rhode Island, including Warwick. Larry Monastesse, director of administration for RISAS, explained that there are some schools who pay the full fee for counselor services, while other contacts are paid for by a combination of state funding and school department funds. The cost for service varies by school depending if a counselor is full-time or part-time, or working in multiple schools.

As for what services a student can receive, Dinklage explained that the counselors can provide support and refer students to outside services if need be.

“It’s not treatment, per say,” said Dinklage. “It’s not taking the place of CODAC or Kent County.”

Students receiving help from RISAS are likely taking part in one-on-one, short-term counseling sessions or taking part in support groups, all of which are designed to remain confidential and, even if someone is referred to the counselor, service is completely voluntary.

“Because we see students for a large range of services, there is not a stigma [if someone sees a fellow student entering the counselor’s office],” said Dinklage.

Support groups represent a variety of students who may face risk factors associated with substance abuse. Dinklage said there are support groups for students who live in homes where there is substance abuse who are new to the school (“We recognize that as a high-risk time,” said Dinklage) and seniors who are facing an unknown future after graduation.

RISAS also features student programs, one of which is VAASA, Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse.

“The athletes vow to be substance free, go through training and make a presentation to the students in the junior high,” said Dinklage, adding that VAASA is an optional program and she works with different coaches to organize it.

Dinklage explained that a small percentage of students using RISAS services were told to attend as part of a disciplinary policy (i.e. the student showed up to a school function under the influence and was mandated to attend a therapy session), but that is rare and varies by school.

In total, Dinklage said since the program was created 26 years ago, 700,000 high school students have been reached through individual therapy, group sessions or school-wide events and assemblies. On average, Dinklage said between 4,000 and 5,000 students are seen by counselors each year.

According to Dinklage, having the counselors in the school building through RISAS is important because the students have the ability to go to the counselor at any point in time and there is an immediacy; if they decide it is time to seek help, they can do that right in that moment by going to the office.

“I think that is one of the success factors,” said Dinklage. “They need to have access to a responsible adult right there.”

In Warwick secondary schools, Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, said there is a full-time RISAS counselor in each of the high schools, and another that travels throughout the three junior high schools.

“It’s a great resource not only to the school, but to guidance and school psychological services,” said Mullen.

He added that the counselors are able to provide a valuable service to students in the schools without being intrusive.

“They are very popular in the schools,” said Mullen of the counselors.

It also provides a sense of safety.

“All research points to the fact that when schools are nurturing, safe environments where students can make connections, it makes it safer overall,” said Dinklage.

Dinklage encourages anyone who wants to register for the conference to do so as soon as possible because seats for the workshops are filling up fast.

The fee to attend the conference is $75 and participants must register online and select workshops before attending. Visit for more information and to register.


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