athornebrooke@ricentral.com

EAST GREENWICH—The town’s drug program will be entering its 36th year of building support and offering assistance to the town’s populace. The Pendulum caught up with drug program director Bob Houghtaling to examine how the program has evolved in its nearly four decades of helping the town.

“How we have delivered the service has significantly changed,” Houghtaling said. “Both in terms of societal factors and the issues needing to be addressed, the program perpetually evolves with major societal trends.”

Houghtaling, who will be entering his 36th full year with the program on July 1, spoke to the early trials of establishing the program in the culture of 1983, and the tragedy that proceeded it.

“When you first come into a community like East Greenwich back in 1983, it’s upper middle class, it has a reputation for tremendous advantages, and then there’s a major tragedy involving a fatal accident.”

That tragedy was the death of 13-year-old Todd Morsilli, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The driver was an East Greenwich High School student, who received a suspended license and community service for the incident.

“In the beginning, the battles were in getting people to acknowledge the problem. Convincing the town there was a problem was an issue,” Houghtaling said. “Educating the community and getting support were crucial. Societal norms with drinking were much, much different back then. Drinking was thought of as this rite of passage, as no big deal.”

In the ‘80s, alcohol abuse among teens and adults had hit a high point in a long history of being socially accepted and normalized. Tobacco use was normal, and there was little to no stigma around either. In such a culture, the drug program had to develop methods of outreach that are now viewed as commonplace.

“Alcohol was a real big issue, and tobacco was a huge issue with the kids and in the culture,” Houghtaling said. “We started by working with parents and building the rudiments of the drug program by cultivating parent groups and providing education to the police. In that way, we were like pioneers in new territory, developing allies and systems of support to survive. We started the teen center, and Citizens Who Care was formed in the aftermath of Morsilli’s death.”

Still, despite early successes in building community awareness and engaging parents in addressing the hazards of alcohol and tobacco, new problems continued to emerge throughout the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s.

“There are always prevailing trends,” Houghtaling said. “Cocaine was a very hot drug at one time. Hallucinogens were quite popular at various times. Until about eight or ten years ago though, alcohol was probably the most common. But then we started seeing marijuana and the early involvement with prescription medications and a rise in mental health issues involving anxiety, depression and alienation.”

“The drug program has had to perpetually evolve to meet these new challenges in different ways. There are always new needs of the moment. One of the things that I am most proud of is that we are a work in progress, always.”

Forming a relationship to mentor and encourage the town’s populace is no easy task, however, and Houghtaling has had to spend a significant amount of the last 36 years putting in the face time with residents to adequately build a relationship capable of fostering positive change.

“A ‘drug counselor,’ working with that label, is climbing up a hill,” Houghtaling said. “No one is going to go see a ‘drug counselor unless they have to, or are ordered to. One of the things we have had to do is create avenues of accessibility to work around that. Whether it’s through coaching, the teen center, philosophy club, dead poets club, really anywhere that the kids can see me as more of a relatable character is good.”

“I spend a lot of time in ‘Mr. Bob’ character, establishing relationships,” Houghtaling said, laughing. “You have to contextually create a type of dynamic of accessibility. People have to be familiar with you in order to seek you out.”

That familiarity is crucial in building preventative measures throughout the community, according to Houghtaling. Parents, teachers and friends are often the first point of contact for fostering positive changes in attitudes and behaviors concerning substance and mental health issues.

“First responders and clinical staff are crucial, but we often give the matador all the credit for the bull despite the fact that the bull has been worked on by dozens of others already,” Houghtaling said. “In the case of these issues, it has been worked on by educators and early interveners. They are as big a contributor as those working in the hospitals. You have to create a system that catches people at the end of the line, at the worst point, but you also have to create ways to intervene before the problem becomes something that bad.”

“There are so many factors: stress, peers and family history. Having hospital staff without implementing preventative measures is like going to the dentist but never brushing your teeth. You have to create a context that can always evolve and bring people in.”

In reflecting on the lessons of the last 35 years, and looking toward what tomorrow will hold, Houghtaling spoke of the uphill battles to come.

“Obviously people still drink,” Houghtaling said, “but the prescription abuse by the 20-30 crowd is immense. Vaping, the most recent manifestation of smoking, is a huge issue. Anxiety and mental health issues are immense. Something like 60-80 percent of substance abuse and anxiety disorders are related to questions of fitting in and belonging.”

“Anxiety, depression, mental health, vaping, societal attitudes toward marijuana, abuse of prescription meds, it all is interrelated and needs to be addressed by helping people find a place for themselves.”

To that end, the drug program is planning a number of events over the course of the next year with the goals of teaching leadership and preventing substance abuse.

“We’ll be doing the Youth to Youth conference,” Houghtaling said. “It’s the 31st year we’ve hosted it. We’re also preparing forums for next year to address the stigma of asking for help as well as mental health and substance abuse more generally. There’s always things to do.”

“Thankfully, I have the best job on earth. I’m part of a community that cares. What’s next is continuing to create partnerships and supporting kids at the youngest levels. There’s always something to do. Always another challenge.”

To close out the conversation, Houghtaling reflected on the best parts of the job, and the most rewarding aspect of helping to lead the community to help itself.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone find a place they belong,” Houghtaling said. “It’s like a drug-free version of Cheers.”

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