By LAURA MILLIKEN and NICK WILLARD
For the MonitorSunday, July 09, 2017
New Hampshire had one of the highest rates of opioid-related fatalities in the country last
year. Communities across the state are reporting that there is a surge in grandparents
raising their grandchildren because of both the chaos and tragedy the crisis has had on
Most New Hampshire citizens know at least one person affected
by the opioid crisis, and
so there is emerging public support for prevention. Unfortunately, most discussions about
prevention look at intervening in middle school at the earliest. While prevention in middle
school is important, we have to set our focus much earlier in children’s developmental
trajectories if we are to effectively
prevent the kind of crises we are now experiencing.
Science tells us that brains are built over time, and from the bottom up, with simple circuits
and skills providing the scaffolding
for more advanced circuits and skills that develop later.
Early experiences literally shape the architecture of the developing brain, and skill begets
skill. We also know that experiences such as abuse, neglect and exposure to violence can
cause toxic stress responses in the brain, with lifelong consequences in health, learning
and behavior. The active ingredient in healthy brain development, and the very thing that
protects against toxic stress, is children’s engagement in relationships with their parents
and other caregivers in their family or community.
That is why effective
early childhood programs and services can protect against a range of
problems later in life – including substance misuse. In addition to buffering
early childhood programs also help to link children to the services they and their families
Intervening early can shape developmental trajectories by piling on protective factors
and minimizing risk factors – even for children most at risk. Programs like evidence based
home visiting, and high-quality child care, preschool and Head Start can help
promote the development of cognitive and social skills which are protective factors against
later substance use. These programs teach children to manage their own emotions and
cope with adversity, and can help parents and other caregivers develop the skills to be
supportive in ways that steer children away from substance use.
(Laura Milliken is director of Spark NH and Nick Willard is Chief of the Manchester Police