MVRHS hosts forum on teen substance abuse

Boston-based recovery coach Thulani DeMarsay talks to Island parents about the importance of understanding a child’s brain chemistry.

The three women who made the forum on teen substance abuse possible, from left: MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy, recovery coach Thulani DeMarsay, and Youth Task Force coalition coordinator Theresa Manning. —Cameron Machell

A forum last Thursday at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) addressed the issue of substance abuse among Island youth. It was led by Thulani DeMarsay, a recovery and wellness coach based in Boston, who discussed the importance of understanding the developing teenage brain and suggested effective forms of communication and engagement between adults and children.

Hosted by the high school, the Youth Task Force (YTF), and the Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC), MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said the forum was the first step in a continued partnership in addressing teen substance abuse.

The turnout was fairly small, with roughly 15 people at the forum — mostly parents, grandparents, and one student. MVRHS school adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois, YTF coordinator Theresa Manning, Dukes County manager Martina Thornton, Tisbury Police Sergeant Kindia Roman, and Tisbury Police Detective Max Sherman attended. There were no selectmen, no teachers, and no representatives from the school district.

Ms. Dingledy said that although educators could not be recovery coaches, the role the school played in preventing substance abuse among teens was critical, and it started with communication. She wants MVRHS to be a place that is preventative “explicitly” — through health education, guidance counseling, and continued work with the IWYC, YTF, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS). But she also hopes the school can be preventative “implicitly,” with teachers leading by example and establishing healthy boundaries for their students.

“That’s a big thing that I believe strongly as an educator — that we’re the adults in the room and we model what it’s like to be resilient, to be grateful, to be compassionate, to be empathetic,” Ms. Dingledy said. “I think we have to talk a lot about how we do that as role models in our own individual ways and how we can feel very comfortable establishing a structure; boundary-filled, but a supportive and warm environment.”

It’s all about the brain

Ms. DeMarsay has studied the neuroscience of addiction and is interested in looking at how a person’s brain chemistry plays a role in substance abuse — a piece, she said, that is often missing from the equation.

“I’m interested in talking about how we engage in conversations, and also looking at the relationship between the brain and addiction and substance use,” she said.

The first thing Ms. Demarsay does to evaluate a client is test their neurotransmitters by collecting urine, saliva, and blood work samples over a course of a day, and sending it to a laboratory to be tested for a comprehensive view of a person’s biochemistry.

“It helps us to understand what’s going on in a person’s brain chemistry,” she said. “There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to recovery or to healing.”

Substance use provides a person with the feeling of temporary relief from chemical imbalances. Ms. DeMarsay, through neurotransmitter testing, can identify individual imbalances and is then able to help shift a person’s biochemistry through nutritional and dietary changes, exercise, and various forms of lifestyle management to create a plan and provide a person with tools to use in their path to recovery.

She called substance use “a container for difficult feelings,” and because children’s brains are still developing, she said that they don’t have the capacity to be as resilient or rational as adults may expect. Often times, they develop poor coping mechanisms as a result.

“It’s important to recognize that there are young people today who are very smart, who are very caring, deeply compassionate, and deeply feeling,” Ms. DeMarsay said. “They don’t have the language to articulate how they’re feeling and often times substance and addiction and using is a way that people sublimate their feelings.”

‘Everybody’s doing it’

Nearly all of the people at the forum expressed concern over the “perceived non-harm” of marijuana use among children, now that several states have legalized medical or recreational use, including Massachusetts. Adults are worried about the attitudes and access to marijuana as it begins to be normalized and legalized throughout the state and the country.

Many parents and grandparents asked Ms. DeMarsay how to respond to a child who says “everybody’s doing it.” She said that one thing children don’t respond to is “scare tactics,” and that a strategy she often implements is “motivational interviewing,” a technique that prompts change and a different kind of engagement through asking open-ended questions that play on an individual’s strengths or goals, and practicing active listening in return.

Ms. DeMarsay told parents that a child, teenager, or young adult does not have the same perspective as their parents, and they shouldn’t be expected to, either. Adults try to use logic and try to be rational with their children, but they can’t understand what the child is experiencing through that sort of reasoning.

“This is why I believe understanding even a little bit about our brains and how the brain is developing is so important because that young person, they just don’t have the perspective,” she said.  

The night concluded with an emphasis on self-care for parents, practicing healthy ways to relieve stress. Exercise was the main way parents said they reduced their stress.

“I think when you’re dealing with kids that are struggling with different issues, the way that we can be effective is by taking care of ourselves,” Ms. DeMarsay said. “And when we take care of ourselves, we can show up in a more healthier way.”

Parents were impressed by the forum, and thanked Ms. DeMarsay for her presentation.

“I think often times it’s our own discomfort,” she said. “And I think it’s fear that keeps us from engaging in authentic conversations that are so necessary.”