Melissa Fernald is a licensed drug counselor and mother of three from Wolfeboro. She is not a trained professional speaker, yet her sobering presentation Tuesday night at Keene High School seemed to leave an indelible impression on the 60 or so parents gathered in the school’s large group instruction area.
Fernald is founder of High and Seek, a program she designed to inform parents of teens and preteens about the fast-evolving, and increasing potency, of drugs. Leaning on her own experiences in therapy with teenagers, she focuses on recognizing signs of substance abuse from alcohol to heroin, and especially marijuana.
She also offers tips to parents in how to approach their children if they suspect drug or alcohol use.
Her teaching tool is a mock bedroom of a typical teenager that mostly fits in a suitcase, a concept she borrowed from programs in Ohio and Chelsea, Mass.
She set up the bedroom in a corner of the room Tuesday, inviting parents to view it up-close and take inventory of its contents. She places more than 80 elements around the room that may trigger suspicions of drug and alcohol use, from the obvious (shot glass) to the subtle (gummy bears).
In her subsequent two-hour presentation, Fernald runs through many of the items — which she primarily bought from department stores and online — demonstrating how teens can turn them into drug paraphernalia.
And the learning curve among teens is swift, Fernald warns, fanned by social media.
Stores can also be accomplices — she describes one convenience store in Chichester that stocked everything drug-related, except for the illegal drugs. Her complaints led to the store removing the drug-related items.
Many counselors and administrators at Keene High, along with school resource officer Jim Lamoureux who added input at times, nodded their heads as they watched. Some said afterward that Fernald’s presentation mirrors the drug crises they encounter every day at Keene, the depth actually understated.
Jennifer Whitehead, student assistance counselor at the school, was instrumental in organizing the presentation, which was for parents only.
“This gives parents a baseline,” Whitehead said. “It’s empowering and it gives parents a tool they can start using today.”
Fernald chuckles in saying, as a dually licensed clinical social worker and alcohol and drug counselor, her idea of group therapy is talking inside a circle, not wrestling with a Power Point on her computer. She’s been a counselor for 18 years, but says in the last four years she’s seen the drug epidemic among teens rise exponentially. It’s what prompted her to start Safe Surroundings NE, which features the High and Seek program.
She emphasizes she is not urging parents to turn their kids’ rooms upside down. Rather, she says look for signs in the normal course of the day, be it carrying on a conversation or changing the linens on the bed. Knowing your child is the most important asset, she said, because that will alert you to behavioral changes.
“The idea here is not for you to go home and start ransacking their rooms,” Fernald said. “Your kids will never let you go in again.”
Fernald lists variety of triggers that may suggest drug use based on common items in their room, from tricked-up water bottles and hand sanitizers that contain vodka to Gummy Bears soaked in alcohol, the odor impossible to detect.
“Kids dig this stuff because it’s trending,” she said, adding she’s learned a lot of tricks from teens in her counseling sessions and their parents who find the paraphernalia.
She pointed out evolving trends such as robotripping (taking over-the-counter medications in large quantities to get a high) and powdered alcohol, a new phenomenon working its way across the country.
Fernald employs statistics sparingly, leaning instead on her own experiences, but they pack a punch when she cites them. Seven in 10 teens, for instance, mix opioids with other substances, resulting in potentially lethal concoctions; and the average teen substance usage begins at 12 to 13 years old.
Perhaps most telling is the alarming increase of marijuana’s acting agent, THC, in a typical hit. Fernald said THC levels in pot rose from 2 percent in the 1970s to 5 percent in the 1980s to 30 percent today. The result is more hallucinations and more out-of-body experiences.
“This is not your grandfather’s pot anymore. It’s much more potent,” Fernald said.
She explains how teens can isolate THC by making marijuana wax, which enhances its potency. They do it in their own rooms using simple items such as a butane lighter and coffee filter. She sees its effects, describing clients who told her their brains felt like they were going in multiple directions before they passed out.
Synthetic marijuana is also explored, particularly how the names are constantly changing, as are its chemicals, especially in the last two years. And she demonstrated a hidden zipper in a baseball cap, specially made to conceal drugs — again, common items found in a teen’s bedroom.
As for treatment, Fernald describes the stages of drug use, beginning with experimentation and ending with abuse. “That’s when I see them,” she said.
The most critical stage for parents to recognize, though, is misuse. It’s a step up from experimentation, where teens may suffer minor negative consequences such as getting caught but aren’t yet addicted. It’s a huge stage, Fernald says, because if parents can detect changes in their kids at that point, a positive outcome is much more likely.
Fernald said statistics show the No. 1 deterrent of drug use is parental disapproval and it’s vital to deliver a clear message at that stage.
“Some kids will continue to do it, inevitably, and progress to abuse, make it into my office,” she said. “How you intervene as a parent, and how you intervene as a school, can determine the flow.”
Fernald employs an acronym — SAFE — as a quick guide for parents: self inventory; assess situation; fact-based discussion; exit the conversation.
She said: “Addiction feeds off secrecy because if you don’t talk to your kids, the streets will.”