The connection between substance abuse and bullying may not be immediately obvious, but studies are showing these behaviors are connected in children, teens and adults.

A recent Ohio State University study showed that students who bully are more likely to use alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana compared to students not involved in bullying. This study and other previous studies also found that alcohol and tobacco use among high school students is higher in bullying victims than students who are not bullied, likely used as coping mechanisms.

It is this correlation between bullying and high-risk behaviors that prompted administrators at Mt. Ararat High School to address bullying with the goal of improving the health and safety of students.

As part of this initiative, Mt. Ararat has been partnering with Challenge Day, a national bullying prevention program that promotes empathy, respect, open communication and expression of feelings, in efforts to create positive change in a young person’s life.

During this annual event, participants engage in a series of icebreakers, games, group discussions and trust building exercises.

The goal of Challenge Day is to improve communication and build respect for peers, adults and the community by addressing and breaking down the separation and isolation that so many teens and pre-teens experience.

It reduces the acceptability of teasing, bullying, oppression and violence toward one another. Because topics about typical adolescent life are discussed, substance-abuse issues tend to be a significant point of discussion as well.

Now in its sixth year, Challenge Day was held at Mt. Ararat Nov. 1, with participation from 100 students and 30 adults. One local student said “Challenge Day provides me with a safe, judgment-free zone where I can fully express who I really am and what I go through on a daily basis.”

She summed up her Challenge Day experience by saying, “What is this feeling? I’m free to be me, and that is amazing!”

For this local student, Challenge Day turns strangers into friends and creates a sense of unity and understanding among the students.

Adult participants benefit from this experience as well, by providing them a safe place to break down their own walls of isolation and — perhaps for the first time — recognize biases that exist in their own world.

For another local student, Challenge Day dramatically improved her relationship with her mom, by allowing her to be more open and honest. This student’s mother, who acted as an adult participant, listened to the experiences and feelings of teens other then her own and gained a new understanding and respect for what all teenagers are going through.

Since its inception, 1 million youths in 400 cities, 47 states and five provinces of Canada have participated in Challenge Day. The results have been decreased teasing, bullying and violence in participating schools. In addition, Challenge Day has been linked to a decline in substance abuse by teens.

Challenge Day has also improved peer support, participants’ ability to express themselves, self-esteem and extracurricular activity involvement. Students who have participated are energized and driven to create positive changes in their schools, homes, and communities. Across the country, this has become known as the “Be the Change” movement. These changes can be as simple as providing a hug and support to a peer, or expressing feelings that would otherwise be bottled up.

Community members can learn from the outcomes of Mt. Ararat’s Challenge Day. Everyone has the capacity to “Be the Change.”

COLLEEN FULLER is public health intern with Access Health, a Healthy Maine Partnership coordinated by Mid Coast Hospital.

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