Dexter High School senior Mia Hilliard says the pressures of high school can be immense for any student.
“School sometimes feels like a really closed-off environment where maybe you feel like people don’t really care,” Hilliard says, adding that it can feel like “you’re just a number.” But she feels supported in the activities she does outside of school – including writing, theater, and Club SRSLY.
Club SRSLY is an outgrowth of SRSLY Dexter, a nonprofit coalition that provides resources for Dexter teens who may be struggling with their mental health or considering using a mind-altering substance. Hilliard likes the club because its goals “can actually impact the community in a healthy way.”
SRSLY Dexter is primarily funded by grants. The largest is a 10-year Drug Free Communities Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are 34 other substance use prevention programs in Michigan that receive funding from this program, in communities from Detroit to Cheboygan.
Chrissie Kremzier, the coalition director, says SRSLY is unique from other substance use prevention programs because of its youth leadership.
“We’re not a whole bunch of adults telling kids what to do,” Kremzier says. “And I think that makes us both unique and powerful.”
The organization’s youth steering committee, which is comprised of a mix of school-age students, is entirely autonomous from the adult steering committee. Likewise, students in the Dexter High SRSLY student group make their own decisions and plan their own events or projects.
“We handle serious discussions and topics like how to remain substance-free,” Kremzier says. “But we try not to take ourselves too seriously and still have a lot of fun.”
Ursula Anderson, SRSLY’s program coordinator, says the organization focuses on building leadership skills and spreading awareness about mental health.
“I grew up in the D.A.R.E. generation,” she says. “And SRSLY, it’s so different than that approach.”
Rather than using “scare tactics,” the organization uses the strategic prevention framework created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program emphasizes using data from the community to address the myriad of socioeconomic variables that influence an individual’s choice to use substances.
“[It’s] really about community building,” Kremzier says. “So [we’re] making connections in the community and fostering protective factors like connecting kids to their community.”
“Protective factors” include safe extracurricular activities, support in the community, and positive personal relationships – elements that can address the reasons underlying a teenager’s desire to use substances.
The coalition offers youth events year-round. There’s a monthly Magic: the Gathering tournament at the Dexter District Library. This past summer, SRSLY organized a weekly day camp held at White Lotus Farms. Other activities include community clean-up days and crafts.
Programs like SRSLY – those that include youth, instead of talking at them – are more successful in preventing substance use, says Erin Bonar, a researcher at the University of Michigan (U-M) Addiction Center.
“No one wants to be told what to do, especially teens,” she says.
Bonar is a professor in the U-M Department of Psychiatry and a practicing clinician. Her work focuses on both prevention and treatment of substance use disorders in youth.
“For youth, the biggest risk has to do with where they’re at developmentally,” Bonar says. “So their brains are still growing. … They have a harder time reining in their impulses, so they might make riskier decisions when under the influence of a substance.”
Myths and misinformation
Determining how many teens use which substances – and how often – can be tricky. SAMHSA’s annual study found that 5.7% of American teens aged 12 to 17, surveyed in 2021, reported using cannabis within the past month. The Monitoring the Future project, headquartered at U-M and funded in part by the National Institute of Health, places that number at 10% for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
Bonar says the variation in the data is probably affected by the way these surveys are administered and the different ages included.
“Nonetheless these data show that anywhere from one in 17 to one in 10 youth are using cannabis,” she wrote in an email.
Bonar and the staff at SRSLY hope that addressing misinformation about the risks of substance use will reduce its prevalence and harmful consequences among youth.
“I think that there is a misperception out there that because [cannabis] is a natural plant ... it’s okay for youth to use,” Kremzier says.
A common misconception is that cannabis isn’t addictive. Bonar says an increase in potency since the 1990s has led to increased rates of cannabis use disorder. Dependence on THC can cause cravings for cannabis, increased anxiety and memory problems, and many other symptoms.
“[It’s] absolutely not your mother’s Mary Jane,” she says.
There are also new ways of ingesting THC that are more harmful than teens may realize.
“The rise of vaping has really changed the game,” Anderson says.
A recent survey by the Food and Drug Administration found that 14.1% of teens use e-cigarettes. They are a lot easier to hide from adults because they do not produce a pungent smell like traditional cigarettes or cannabis.
“I’d say vaping is pretty common,” Hilliard says. “It’s just extremely well hidden at school.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that vaping THC or nicotine carries a risk of addiction similar to that of smoking. Researchers are still trying to determine what chemical byproducts vapes produce.
“You just don’t know” what you’re inhaling, Bonar says. “You’re putting unnatural substances in your body.”
The biggest hurdle
The other side of SRSLY's strategic planning framework addresses environmental factors that may lead to substance use. One such “risk factor” is mental illness. SRSLY hopes to overcome this hurdle through resources and open dialogue with youth about managing mental health.
“The youth mental health crisis is actually a serious challenge when it comes to substance use,” Bonar says. “Our youth are struggling, and substances at times can feel like a way to cope or escape.”
“It’s hard to be vulnerable,” Hilliard says. “It’s hard to tell people that you’re struggling with something, because all of us, especially high school students, are extremely insecure about how we’re viewed, especially by adults.”
Asked what advice she would give someone who is considering substance use, Bonar suggests thinking about why the desire to use is there.
“A lot of people’s impulse would be to just say, ‘Don’t do it.’ But we know that doesn’t actually help,” Bonar says. “I would say [to] take a step back, think it through. Ask yourself where this might lead and what might be the worst outcome. … There’s probably a way to deal with that problem that’s less risky.”
Hilliard emphasizes thinking in the long term.
“What are the consequences for my body?” Hilliard says. “It’s really hard to see that for someone who’s young because we have a hard time looking at our future.”
But Bonar is hopeful – because the conversation is happening.
“Today’s generation is much more aware of and concerned about mental health,” she says. “That’s really a big thing when it comes to substance use disorders.”
“I don’t even remember hearing that word growing up,” Anderson says.
As SRSLY enters the final year of its Drug-Free Communities Grant from the CDC, Kremzier says the organization is also focusing on sustainability.
“We want to stick around as long as we can,” she says.
Elinor Epperson is a freelance journalist based in Ypsilanti. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State University, focusing on environmental, health, and science reporting.