Your Source For Local and Regional News



Featured News Wyoming

Teen substance use on the rise

By Marit Gookin
Lander Journal
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

LANDER — Drug and alcohol use among teens in Fremont County is a growing problem. Between last year and this year, juvenile misdemeanor citations in Lander more than doubled, going from 59 to 121, and the majority of these citations have to do with drugs or alcohol. 

According to Fremont County Treatment Courts and Youth Services Director Cassie Murray, Lander isn’t an outlier; substance abuse is a rising issue for Fremont County teens. 

“It’s not just something we’re seeing in Lander, we’re seeing that across the board,” she said. “We’re seeing it across the county.” 

Nationwide, teens are struggling with mental health as well as drugs and alcohol. 

According to KFF (formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation), adolescent deaths due to drug overdoses almost doubled between 2019 and 2020; suicide is the second leading cause of death among American teens, but KFF notes that some teen suicides may have been misclassified as drug overdoses. 

For many communities, access to mental health care may have worsened during the COVID pandemic, and it is a well-documented fact that untreated mental health problems tend to be linked to an increased risk of substance abuse. 

Even to a lay person, this connection makes sense: If you can’t receive the treatment you need through legitimate avenues, you are more likely to try to self-medicate with the substances that are available to you. 

Murray said that there are likely multiple factors at work, but that the pandemic also played a role in Fremont County. 

“One of the things that COVID did was bring out inequities, or anything else, that was already going on,” she pointed out. “There’s a lot of inequity within our community, and those things kind of bear out … We have a lot of trauma in this community.” 

There are many teens in Fremont County, she noted, who have to deal with poverty, a lack of housing, hunger and/or abuse. All of these factors can contribute to teens turning to substance use.

“The unfortunate part is that there isn’t a lot of [mental health and substance abuse recovery] resources [in Fremont County], so for some families there is no way for them to get treatment until it comes to criminal charges,” she added. “If people don’t have access to treatment, then they can’t get better.” 

People are working on longer-term solutions to these issues on the national, state and local levels; some states, such as Wyoming, have even implemented mental health and substance abuse task forces. 

Wyoming House District 54 Rep. Lloyd Larsen, from Lander, is the co-chair of the Wyoming Mental Health and Vulnerable Adults Task Force

; at the task force’s meeting in Lander this July, mental health issues in Wyoming youth were discussed, with Larsen pointing out that school counselors alone aren’t necessarily adequate to handle the problem. 

Dr. Laurel Ballard from the Wyoming Department of Education and Daniel Mayer, executive director of the Region V Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and a former school psychologist, both agreed, stating that school counselors and psychologists provide different services and that increasing student access to mental health services would help Wyoming students and schools. 

On the county level, Fremont County additionally has a youth services program, which was initially funded through a federal program but now is largely funded by the county and the cities of Lander and Riverton as well as a variety of grants. 

In 2022, Fremont County Youth Services received $28,750 from the city of Lander; in 2023, Assistant Director Hattie Calvert requested $30,000 from Lander. 

“We handle all the [misdemeanor] citations that are issued in Fremont County,” she told Lander City Council at its August 22 meeting. “We’re seeing it a lot in our community … and with that comes a lot more intense supervision.” 

Fremont County Youth Services has a day reporting center and two probation officers, working with all non-felony juvenile offenders in Fremont County.

“Our county has something that not every county in the state has, and that’s called a delayed sentence bond,” Murray explained. “There’s a little bit more flexibility for the courts to order things … It allows kids that genuinely just made a mistake to not have that come onto their record.” 

In the state of Wyoming, she said, juvenile offenses typically go on your permanent record; Fremont County’s delayed sentence bond essentially puts off the sentencing process while kids receive counseling and treatment, so sentencing decisions can be made after they’ve had a chance to try to get back on the straight and narrow. 

“We try to make the best decision that we can based on the pieces that we have – and we have to remember that these are juveniles and their brains aren’t fully developed,” she continued. “They don’t need necessarily the charge, they need treatment and the help to go down a different path.”

Another factor, Murray said, is technology. 

Teens have more access to everything than they did even 10 years ago, and seeking out drugs and alcohol is less difficult with the help of technology. 

Additionally, some of the substances that teens are using are legal in certain contexts – either alcohol and cigarettes, which are legal depending on age, or prescription medications, which in some other states includes marijuana. 

“There’s this idea that because it’s legal, it’s not a big deal,” she observed.

The 121 citations in Lander this past year include repeat offenders; Calvert said that without the exact numbers in front of her, she would guess there were probably 90-100 individuals who made up those 121 citations. 

In previous years, she told the city council, about 10% of those citations would be considered “high risk,” but in “the last three years, we’ve seen that jump closer to 20%.” 

In response to council member Julia Stuble’s inquiry about whether the increase in citations reflects an increase in use or more enforcement, Calvert explained that there seems to have been an overall increase in high-risk behavior in Fremont County youth. 

Murray added that new measures such as the school district’s drug testing policy will probably not change the base population that the treatment courts and youth services are already working with. 

“What we’re going to see is what we already know,” she told the city council. 

Still, the drug testing policy may reveal still more youth abusing drugs. 

“I think we’re going to catch some kids we didn’t think were using,” Murray added. 

Council member Melinda Cox noted that school drug testing will not lead to citations. 

Substance abuse may be a growing problem, but it is also a complex one. Some teens who seem to have every factor working against them respond well to treatment and go on to be very successful; others who seem to have everything in their favor may continue to struggle and become repeat offenders.

“This is not an issue that can just be fit into a box,” Murray commented. “Everybody wants there to be an answer; there’s not one right answer … What’s going to help one kid may not help another … There’s no one size fits all.” 

Still, there are factors that can help – such as the work that people such as Murray and Calvert are putting into helping kids facing drug and alcohol citations get access to support and counseling while still facing consequences such as probation when appropriate, and the work that people such as Larsen are putting into providing mental health services to Wyomingites.

Let us know what you think!