Updated July 2 at 5:02pm

Five Questions With: Frances M. Harding

Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at SAMHSA talks about a PSA campaign focused on the dangers of underage drinking.

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Five Questions With: Frances M. Harding

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On May 13, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched its national public service announcement campaign, “Talk. They Hear You.” The advertising campaign is focused on the dangers of underage drinking, seeking to empower parents to talk to young children.

More than 25 percent of young Americans engage in underage drinking, according to the agency’s statistics. In Rhode Island, according to the latest statistics [taken from surveys conducted in 2008 and 2010], more than 33 percent of young persons between the ages of 12 and 20 said that they used alcohol in the last month.

Providence Business News talked with Frances M. Harding, the director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at SAMHSA about the strategy behind the PSA campaign and its focus on parents.

PBN: What is the strategy behind the new national PSA campaign focused on the dangers of underage drinking, focused on empowering parents to talk to young children.

HARDING: Our data shows us, time and time again, that the biggest influence on a young person’s choices [about drinking] is their parents.

Our main strategy in this PSA is focused on parents, and not on youth.

The context is that underage drinking is the leading contributor to death for people under the age of 21.

During the months of June and July, twice as many young people try alcohol for the first time, often when they are in self-care situations, or at camp away from their parents. That’s why we’re releasing the campaign now, in May, when it can have the biggest impact, so that parents can be empowered with this information.

PBN: What kinds of placements will you be seeking with the PSA? Will any of the current hockey or basketball playoffs be targeted? Or, shows like Mad Men, which often features a culture of drinking to excess?

HARDING: The placements are free, not paid. Our strategy and focus on this is to create a broad national voice, targeting specifically parents and caregivers, with prevention programming and public education. We will be encouraging participation through our state partner networks, distributing the PSAs and press kits and tool kits to them. It’s an environmental strategy to get the PSA message out. The states are able to take our messages and [place] them at the state level, at concerts and events.

PBN: How much denial is there by parents about the problem of underage drinking, even with the prevalence of statistics?

HARDING: I wouldn’t call it denial. Many parents don’t see this as a top issue. They don’t believe they have the power to influence a younger person’s choices on alcohol. We want to change that. Parents are the first people that younger children observe and look at. Parents have a very powerful role in influencing behavior of children 9-12 years – the young adults, the middle-schoolers, the early teens.

The listen to parents, even if they do not seem to be listening, they listen.

Our strategy is focused on helping parents develop the skills to talk with young people.

PBN: Why is targeting parents the most effective strategy to combat underage drinking?

HARDING: This campaign really focuses on helping parents understand the dangers of alcohol and underage drinking.

Underage drinking is way too high, but we are making some inroads. No one is comfortable with the rates of underage drinking.

The most powerful voices are parents. Most six year olds know that alcohol is only for adults. For children 9-13, they see it on television, it’s flashed across their computer screens. We need to have parents and other adult caregivers be able to say: It’s not OK to drink until you’re 21.

And parents need to know not to ever become intoxicated in front of children.

We don’t want to give the impression that this one campaign will be the panacea for all prevention programs going on to prevent underage drinking.

PBN: Can you quantify the numbers nationally – and in Rhode Island – for underage drinking?

HARDING: In Rhode Island, according to the latest statistics, more than 33 percent of young persons between the ages of 12 and 20 used alcohol in the last month.

Nationwide, about 10 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported drinking alcohol in the last month, including about 33 percent of eighth graders.

No parent is comfortable with these facts.

But, the earlier parents speak about alcohol use with their children, the more normal such conversations become. When they’re between 8 and 9, that’s the time that parents need to begin talking to their kids.

Frances M. Harding, SAMHSA, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention

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