Does virtual learning create a culture of increased drug use?

by Sarah Scarbrough, Ph.D., Founder of REAL LIFE

We all have heard the news – schools across Virginia, and the country, are returning via a virtual environment. And, we know it is going to be tough. This article is not here to debate the decision or the whys but to raise awareness and open your eyes to something that worries me greatly: idle time, kids home alone with alcohol and drugs.

This article is going to be bold, but I have seen way too much to sit here and be silent. Parents need to have eyes wide open going into this virtual environment!

Most people think of someone who uses drugs as a junkie, a homeless person sitting on the corner with a brown paper bag, someone who smells and doesn’t shower. They do not think of the middle to upper class suburban teens that are well dressed, have great families. Well this is just flat out wrong.

When I first began in the Richmond Jail in 2008, I was shocked at what I saw. I had been to a jail on a field trip in middle school. The rest I “thought I knew,” was from TV and movies, pretty much. Wow what an eye opener. I walked onto one of the pods, G3 as a matter of fact, and saw a kid from my church youth group – sitting there in a jumper. Yep, locked up for selling drugs.

How could this be?

He went to church. His parents were nice. He grew up with some money. He even went on mission trips. Next up, seeing inmates from the “good” high schools in the suburban parts of the county. I was floored. The number of young men and women in the Richmond Jail that were from the “counties” (and I am not talking about the ‘poor’ part) that were in for drug possession or distribution – it blew me away.

Many began using for various reasons – mom and dad were gone a lot and they were home alone. They had access to the beer in the fridge and liquor cabinet, and why not “have fun” after dad goes to bed; after all, that’s what my parents do for fun when they have friends over, right? They had access to money; money buys drugs! They had access to jewelry that no one would know is missing. They pawn jewelry, silver or old phones. Oh yea, drug dealers will take items like that in lieu of cash money. Some were trying to cope with some sort of trauma in their life (and remember, trauma is in the eye of the beholder). Divorce. Dad always out of town and can’t attend sporting events. Bullying at school. A lot of pressure from home. Making bad grades. Moving. Death. Illness. The list goes on and on. Things that often parents do not think about have an adverse effect, but they do, and then kids (who then become adults in the jail system) look for an escape – a way out.

Jill Cichowicz, a supporter of REAL LIFE and similar community organizations shared, “I think from the outside looking in, most people were shocked to learn about my twin brother, Scott’s death. They couldn’t fathom that this handsome young man that ran gyms in California could die from an accidental overdose, especially since Facebook showed he had an enviable life. Truth is, he struggled for a long time…we tried to help for many years, you never believe that someone you love so much can be yanked from your life in an instant due to addiction.”

Jill goes on to say, “I am fearful of how Covid-19 is affecting the mental health of those around me. There is no race that the nasty beast of addiction spares, so many are struggling as a result of the uncertainty of our future. It’s imperative that we come together to fix this, I want to spare as many families as possible the daily pain my family lives with. I owe this to my children, my family and friends…most importantly Scott.”

I remember sitting and talking with one of the men in the REAL LIFE program

He grew up in the projects in the City. His dad (also in the same program) was a drug dealer. He followed in his daddy’s footsteps in every single way. His main “clients” when dealing drugs were soccer moms in the West End and kids in the area. I will never forget what he then told me, “Sarah, I was kind of an ethical drug dealer. I felt bad, but I needed money.

One time I told one of the ladies, ‘I am trying to get where you are, and this is why I am doing this. You are tearing your life apart and are going to end up where I am if you keep doing this.’” She didn’t care, so he sold her the drugs.

But did you hear that? Suburban kids are often a target for drug selling

Or, if kids seek it out, I promise you they will find someone to sell them. I will also add, there are a lot of teens/young girls from Powhatan who go to the City to prostitute for drugs and drug money. Shocking, huh? They also text drug dealers who deliver it to their cul de sac or driveway like pizza delivery.

Now, let’s insert COVID

Something that has not been a part of any of the conversation above. COVID has already made things worse – way worse. 

Drug use has skyrocketed. The cost of drugs both in the street and in jails (yes, in jails) has increased by 300% in some cases. It’s the basics of economics. Demand up, prices up! Besides that, liquor store sales have tripled in the state of Virginia since COVID-19.

Unfortunately, overdoes have shown a significant increase. While Virginia as a whole has not published a lot of numbers, Richmond City has preliminary numbers and they are not good. Chesterfield County does track overdoses and they are indeed up for this time of year.

Social restrictions, economic crisis, and isolation as a result of COVID-19 have had a huge impact on this. People are struggling more with their mental health, PTSD, depression – the list continues.

Virtual learning means teens will be home for extended periods of time

Being at home creates stress in teens, just as it does in adults. Parents must be vigilant. When teens are left home alone, they are more likely to turn to drug use out of sheer boredom, out of curiosity, or out of a desire to counter negative emotions; using drugs becomes a coping behavior. And like everyone, they are looking for something to make them feel good in an era where less fun is going on.

Anne Moss Rogers, community activist, author of Diary of a Broken Mind, and a mother whose son died by suicide while going through withdrawal from a heroin addiction agreed, “This COVID-19 environment creates the isolation that fuels the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Teens who are grieving, depressed, bored, or feel less connected, often resort to drugs and alcohol to feel good or numb their feelings. Adolescents are more at risk for addiction because they have underdeveloped coping skills and their brains are still developing.”

Parents be mindful

This could be your child. Idle time is the devil’s playground. The stresses from schooling at home, being at home, and COVID are traumatic to many. This often leads to destructive behaviors and poor coping. Keep your eyes open. Do not believe for a minute this can’t be you.  

Common characteristics among those who use drugs and things to look out for:

  • Mood swings and mood changes
  • Isolation and changes in socialization
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in skin coloring
  • Yellowing of the eyes
  • Eyes sunk in
  • Pinpointed pupils
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in energy level (either up or down)
  • Getting money but having nothing to show for it
  • Any overall change in behavior

If you believe your teen may be using drugs or on the verge, please reach out for help. There are many organizations that will help, including us! REAL LIFE is a non-profit organization and we offer all services free of charge. REAL LIFE serves individuals who have been impacted by incarceration, homelessness, or substance use disorder by giving them an opportunity to overcome their personal and community barriers that hinder their pathway to a Thriving Life.

During these trying times, however, REAL LIFE is engaging in community outreach to raise awareness of how drug use is affecting individuals from all walks of life.

Free ebook: Signs of Drug Use

Learn what I wish I’d known before I lost my son to drug-related suicide

One thought on “Does virtual learning create a culture of increased drug use?”

  1. Good stuff…those adverse childhood events can trigger abuse which then leads to addiction…not one of us thought we would be walking that road.
    And we also didn’t realize those ACE’s could lead to habitual abuse.
    I hated visiting my son in jail…watching him walk in wearing an orange jumpsuit, acting cocky because he was ashamed, scared ,etc. This disease does not discriminate. Our family was the Far West End country club family…guess what?

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