The Opioid Epidemic: What is the Role of Teen Institutes?

Teen Institutes that are serious about fighting the opioid epidemic need to adopt major reforms to combat the opioid epidemic. As a leader in the teen institute space with over a decade of experience, I know that this is our fight. We must rise to meet it.

I remember the sense of wonder when my first Lindsey Meyer Teen Institute (LMTI) summer conference experience came to an end. As a first generation immigrant, I had always felt a sense of otherness like I was a stranger in someone else’s home; LMTI was the first place where I felt truly accepted. That was the summer of my eighth grade year. I have been involved with LMTI since serving in volunteer, counselor, and coordinator capacities over 10 years. As my roles evolved so too has my understanding of the role of teen institutes (TIs).
According to the National Association of Teen Institutes (NATI), TIs are “programs…dedicated to providing young people the leadership skills to promote alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention…”. In my experience, this mission manifests in two ways: teaching leadership skills and implementing/coordinating drug prevention efforts in local communities. With 50 programs serving on average 36,500 youth yearly, TIs seem optimally positioned to fight against the opioid epidemic – the worst addiction crisis in our history with overdoses overtaking car crashes and gun violence as the #1 killer of people under age 50. Yet, opioid addiction in youth has skyrocketed six fold from 2001. It’s clear that TI efforts, as they currently stand, are insufficient. We must do more. If TI directors are serious about fighting this epidemic, there are three actions that must be taken immediately:
  1. Revive NATI –NATI does not exist. A brief excursion through its website reveals a blank calendar, dysfunctional multimedia, and links that go nowhere. After securing and reviewing the most recent NATI database, I found 75% of organizations either didn’t exist or had faulty contact information. This makes sense; after all, NATI has been disbanded for many years. This is unacceptable. There needs to be a national organization that speaks with one voice and coordinates national level efforts. With few exceptions, TIs are currently operating independently of each other with different focuses and strategies. NATI should be re-formed with directors from the most successful and best funded TIs. A new mission statement should be drawn up complete with goals that have actionable timelines and quantifiable metrics.
  2. Expand Operations – Currently, TIs operate in only 21 states. That means that 60% of the country has no TI presence. All TIs should seek to expand their activities within their own state and then to adjoining states. A strong NATI would ensure that no one is infringing on another’s “territory”. These expansions would require additional fundraising. Each TI needs to hire a director of finance whose sole job is to raise and delegate funds. Nearly 100 people die each day from overdosing on opioids; now is not a time to play coy with the messaging. Our youth are at risk. There has never been a more urgent time to fund TIs.
  3. Actively Participate in Local and National Politics – Finally, inspiring teenagers and sending them to fight drug abuse in their communities is a palliative measure. TI’s need to strike at the structural issues that facilitate this abuse in the first place. This is only possible by promoting policies that place more regulations on prescription drugs, higher penalties on negligent parents, and more funding for efficacious rehabilitation efforts. TIs have important connections with municipal alliances. They should use these connections – and they should seek out new partnerships with influential groups – to put pressure on government at all levels to implement such policies.
Every year at LMTI, a fire is lit upon the lake adjoining the campsite. As participants, we each hold a candle which symbolizes our own TI fire – a light meant to inspire and create change. Too many youth today stumble around in darkness. The opioid epidemic is our fight. We must rise to meet it.  
TI Fire

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