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Good news, bad news about teen drinking

Aaron Holsinger said he doesn’t like telling his tragic tale, but he really has no choice.

Holsinger, now 28, was convicted of negligent homicide after his girlfriend, Gina Erickson, died in a 2001 drunken-driving accident. He was driving the car.

He spent six months in jail, will be on probation until he is 41 and is sentenced to 500 hours of community service.

“The choices that you make and that I made effect other people,” he recently told about 30 people convicted of underage drinking. “I stood in that courtroom and pleaded not guilty in front of Gina’s parents. That must have hurt them.”

Now Holsinger tells his story to minors attending alcohol-abuse impact groups as part of his required community-service sentence.

Drinking is considered by many to be a rite of passage, particularly in Montana, where the rate of teen binge drinking is among the highest in the nation.

But society pays an enormous price for this. Youth who drink are more likely to get into fights, suffer from depression, attempt suicide and use illicit drugs and tobacco, experts say.

And the younger people start drinking, the more likely they are to develop alcohol dependency issues, which in turn contribute to lifelong health issues and, in some cases, criminal behavior.

Springtime – when school is ending, graduations are celebrated and outdoor keg parties are scheduled n can be a particularly dangerous time of year for kids.

‘It was totally my fault’

Holsinger was 20 years old on that April night when he and Erickson left a party at the Battle Ridge campground. He had been drinking, but that didn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel.

“I thought I was OK,” he said.

As they traveled through Bridger Canyon around 4 a.m., Erickson asked Holsinger to change the music. As he replaced the CD, the car veered off the road and plummeted down a 50-foot embankment, rolled several times and landed in a creek.

Neither he nor Erickson was wearing seatbelts and Erickson got pinned beneath the car. Despite Holsinger’s best efforts to free her, Erickson died.

“I still have nightmares about what I saw there,” he said. “It was totally my fault and I didn’t understand why I was still alive. It only took a second.”

Drinking hard and fast

People between the ages of 12 and 20 drink nearly 20 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the United States, according to a 2007 survey by the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

The age at which people begin drinking, and drinking heavily, is a key factor in the risk for alcohol-related problems later in life. As many as 40 percent of people who begin drinking at 14 years old wind up alcohol dependent, according to the OPI report. If people don’t start until the legal age of 21 that rate drops to 10 percent.

“So many people, especially in Montana, think (drinking) is just a normal rite of passage, and for a lot of teenagers it is,” said Wendy Bianchini, who teaches child and adolescent development and substance-abuse courses at Montana State University. “But the problem is you mix a not fully developed brain with alcohol and it impairs judgment and negatively impacts the brain. It’s disastrous.

“Alcohol is involved in all the leading causes of death in adolescents nationwide … contributing to crashes, suicides and other ‘accidental’ deaths,” said Bianchini, who lost her father to a drunken-driving crash when she was 10, and is also a victim’s advocate for the Gallatin County chapter of Mothers against Drunk Driving.

And kids who do drink tend to drink hard and fast. About 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is guzzled in the form of binge drinking, according to the OPI survey.

The Centers for Disease Control found that in 2005, 34 percent of Montana’s high school students participated in binge drinking n more than any other state included in the survey.

There are myriad reasons why teens binge drink, said Vicki DeBoer, a licensed social worker who counsels adolescents with Alcohol and Drug Services of Gallatin County.

“Teens drink because they enjoy it and in some cases they are trying to change how they feel,” she said. “Binge drinking often occurs because teens are playing games with alcohol and it gets out of hand.”

But the good news is that the teen-drinking numbers appear to be declining, after years of education in middle and high school.

Montana State University Police Chief Robert Putzke said the number of minors caught drinking at tailgating parties dropped significantly after MSU instituted new rules two years ago.

For example, now people must have a ticket to the sporting event in order to enter the tailgating area, he said, and the incidence of underage drinking at those events has fallen to about half of what it used to be.

He’s also encouraged by surveys that show a drop in teen binge drinking.

“It’s nice to see a dip in high school drinking,” he said. “I hope that will translate into reduced numbers of student binge drinking on campus in the future.”

Other sad tales

As Holsinger talked about his girlfriend’s death, one of the guys sitting in the audience, Fred, recognized some aspects of the story.

Now 21, Fred n who asked not to be identified for this story – said he never drank before he came to MSU. But he wound up involved with the wrong people and one summer, at home in Wyoming, he acted as lookout while his friend stole an assault rifle from a house. The friend got busted and ratted him out, he said.

“In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

Fred was convicted of felony burglary and sent to a maximum security facility in Wyoming, then released on his own recognizance. But that’s when things got really bad.

“I started drinking again all summer,” he said.

He got caught and was charged with minor in possession.

The judge sent him to counseling. That helped him quit drinking, he said.

“You’re on an elevator ride to the bottom floor,” he said his counselor told him. “All you have to do is push the button and you can make it stop anywhere you want to and get off. I can show you how to push the button but I can’t do it for you.”

Fred is serving a deferred 30-year sentence with a $30,000 fine. If he stays clean until October, the sentence will be erased from his record and he can start anew.

He is hopeful, but acknowledged he still has a problem with booze.

“I did, I do,” he said. “I am an alcoholic. I am to this day. But I don’t need to go back down that road. I don’t need that stereotypical title of alcoholic.”

Changes in attitude

Attending meetings like the one at which Holsinger spoke is part of the condition of Fred’s freedom. Bianchini said research shows that impact group programs and other alternative forms of sentencing that keep people out of jail work well – for first-time offenders.

“I really appreciate the support the judges give us,” she said. “But I get really mad when judges send those chronic offenders to our (programs) because what they really need is treatment.”

She also said the solutions go beyond the justice system.

“Kids are raised by communities, not by programs,” she said and she thinks American culture needs an attitude adjustment on the subject of underage drinking.

“Society says, ‘Brace yourself for the teen years. It’s something you have to get through rather than embrace it,’” she said. “I don’t think we do a great job of giving adolescents a role in society other than the expectation that they’re going to be rebellious and obnoxious and they’re going to struggle.

“And they’re living up to our expectations,” she said.

She sited adolescent rites of passage in other cultures like walkabouts in Aboriginal communities or Bar Mitzvahs in Jewish culture as helping those kids navigate that period of their lives.

Teens have so much passion and creative energy, she said. “If we can figure out how to garner that in positive ways then that could lead to some pretty amazing things in our culture.”

source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle

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