The Legislature recently unveiled a plan to tackle opiate addiction in Maine. The $4.8 million proposal includes boosting enforcement and increasing treatment for those already struggling with opiate addiction.

Along with increasing the availability of Narcan, which reverses the effects of overdoses, these elements are essential for dealing with the increase in drug-related crime, overdoses and deaths caused by the current opiate addiction problem.

But to keep more people from becoming addicted to opiates, we must also support prevention. Preventing addiction before it happens is the best way to end this current opiate crisis. Effective prevention is informed by an understanding that addiction is not a moral failing of individuals but a response to biological, psychological, environmental and social factors and that the whole community has an important role in addressing the causes of addiction.

At birth, children’s hearts are fully formed, pumping blood through the body. Their lungs bring air in and out, and their kidneys clean the body of waste.

The brain, on the other hand, is just beginning to develop. The blueprint and materials are there, but like the construction of a house, the brain does not get built on its own. The brain gets built over more than 20 years through interactions with people and with the environment in which the child lives.

If a child lacks nurturing and stable caregivers or experiences a world full of danger and no real opportunities, the brain will be built on a weak foundation, making it much tougher for that child to learn new skills and cope with problems. This weak foundation causes the brain to be more susceptible to addiction and other health problems later in life.

Just as we are born with developed hearts and lungs, our biology has a set “trigger point” at which addiction can happen – to anyone. A weak foundation may lead someone to that point more quickly. If a child has positive interactions with adults and a safe and secure environment full of opportunities for their growth, the child will develop strong brain architecture, making it more likely they will reach their potential.

We all create the environment in which children live, and we all can be a part of creating an environment in which addiction is less likely to happen. When we support skill-building for children and families, opportunities for meaningful participation by all community members, and policies and practices that increase safety, there is a direct positive impact on the brain development of our children and their ability to thrive.

To create the best environment to reduce addiction, the state prevention plan should include:

Educating the community: The earlier people use any substance that could lead to addiction, the more likely they are to struggle with addiction later in life. Therefore, the longer that young people wait to use any substance, the better off they will be.

We must educate parents, police, school staff, primary care providers and other community members that a key element of prevention is giving a consistent message to young people that we don’t want them using substances because it damages the developing brain.

Backing up this message with consequences and consistent enforcement of the rules is also critical. Effective consequences – like early intervention programs rather than punishment – help young people understand why this is important. Young people also benefit from caring adults asking them what is going on in their lives that makes using substances their reality.

Reducing access: When young people have easy access to drugs, alcohol and nicotine, they are more likely to use them. We must reduce the access people have to opiates by locking up medicines and properly disposing of them when they are not needed anymore.

We also must support the efforts of doctors to limit the amount of opiates prescribed while also helping people in pain to find other ways to find relief.

Promoting resilience: To counteract the impact that significant adversity can have on brain development and help those affected deal with the fallout, communities and families can promote resilience through skill-building, support and positive connections. We also must find more resources to support families with young children and fund quality early-childhood programming.

Supporting recovery: Creating environments that are best for preventing young people from using substances are also the best environments for supporting people in recovery from addiction. Recovery can, will and does happen.

Making sure people have access to safety, support and opportunities for meaningful participation prevents substance use among youth and fosters recovery.

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