Hoping to make it easier for parents to confront the harsh reality of teen-age drug and alcohol abuse, Baltimore County health officials are trying a new tack: living-room gatherings where friends and neighbors can talk about the sensitive issue in relative privacy.
That strategy, modeled on an approach taken by the county several years ago to teach about AIDS, is an alternative to the kinds of mass meetings or educational forums that officials say sometimes draw more media than participants.
"We've got to do something a little different, be more aggressive and make parents more comfortable," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse, which will launch the Parents Reaching Out to Understand Drugs effort in August. He says the program is unique in Maryland.
The gatherings, somewhat like Tupperware sales parties, call for parents to organize sessions at times and places they find convenient.
With materials bought with state grant funds and a $5,000 donation from Heritage Automotive Group, Pamela Blank -- the office's parent education worker -- will use games and other devices to break the ice and get people talking.
In "drug bingo," she calls out different drug-related terms and then sees if people know what they mean or the health connection.
She also has a tablet that smells like marijuana when burned to acquaint parents with the odor. She leads role playing, too, and gives out packets of information that can be taken home.
"I'm not out there to lecture. People tend to get bored, I try to think of different new ways for it to be interactive," said Blank, who has held several pilot sessions in county facilities and will hold the first home-based meeting next month.
Officials say the need for such drug education is critical. Despite the deaths of several suburban teens from heroin overdoses in recent months, parents are often in denial about teen-age drug use, officials say, or are too busy to go to large school-based meetings about drugs.
Blank also warned that parents must shed the stereotypes they may carry about young people who use drugs.
"Drugs don't discriminate. They can be straight-A students," she said of youthful drug users.
Blank said that "a lot of parents don't talk to their kids' friends' parents. They need to talk to each other more." Some, for example, may allow 10-year-olds to watch violent or sexually explicit movies, or drink wine at dinner. Unfortunately, she said, "it takes a tragedy for parents to come out" to events to learn about drugs.
Charmaine Lewis, 31, a mother of two who also is raising two nephews, attended one pilot meeting near her White Marsh home and was impressed.
"Half the stuff I didn't know anything about," she said, adding that later, talking over some of the street slang with her 11- and 13-year-olds, "I was shocked they knew the names of all the stuff. I want to keep up with them. I was glad to be able to be there."
Blank said she deals often with the parents of younger, elementary or middle school children. And Lewis said there's a lot to learn, such as the resurgence of LSD among young people and what forms it comes in.
"We want to let them know this is not a joke. You can die from this," she said.
For information or to schedule a session, call the Office of Substance Abuse at 410-887-3828.
Pub Date: 7/06/98