SPARK (Supporting Positive Actions for Resilience and Knowledge) aims to prevent and reduce the misuse of substances of first use (alcohol, nicotine, & cannabis) among Central Berkshire County Middle and High School-age youth, and the consequences associated with substance use. SPARK brings together representatives from diverse community sectors including youth, youth serving organizations, local government, and community service organizations with a shared goal of improving mental health, social connections and community empowerment.

What We’re Learning

Every two years, Berkshire County 8th, 10th and 12th graders complete the Prevention Needs Assessment (PNA), providing valuable data on youth substance use and risk factors, as well as protective factors that help young people flourish. According to the 2022 PNA:

  • Central County youth report lower lifetime substance use compared to national averages, which is great news!
  • However, more problematic use is higher: 20.4% of Central County youth report past-30-day alcohol use vs. 15.6% nationally; for cannabis, 16.2% vs. 12.3% nationally.
  • Youth substance use appears to be influenced more by attitudes and expectations set by adults, rather than peer pressure from other youth:
    • 57% of county 12th graders feel local laws and norms favor substance use and 48% feel parental attitudes favor use.
    • Berkshire County exceeds state and national averages on adult alcohol misuse, and has a cannabis retailer density rate four times higher than the state!
  • In addition to social norms, substance use is also closely tied to poor mental health.
    • Nationally,8% of adolescents aged 12-17 receive mental health treatment, but over 40% who self-report mental health needs do not receive treatment. 
      • The most common reason (86.9%) adolescents don’t get treatment was that they thought they should have been able to handle their concerns on their own. 59.8% further reported they were concerned about what people would think or say, 57.8% worried their privacy would not be maintained, and 55.5% reported they did not know where to get treatment.

Five Key Goals

Based on this data and leadership from Youth Advisory Boards at Pittsfield and Taconic High Schools, SPARK is pursuing five key goals to reduce adolescent substance use and promote positive mental health:

  1. Launch a Peer-to-Peer Mental Health Support and Navigation Group in the schools
    • Youth are uniquely positioned to identify peers struggling with mental health challenges before they escalate to crises and/or the use of substances to cope.
    • Peer support programs have been shown to improve MH outcomes, including reducing substance use, particularly for marginalized youth. 
  2. Cultivate youth advocacy skills and foster engagement in transportation and municipal development processes 
    • The Surgeon General’s 2023 report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” emphasizes how social isolation and loneliness contribute to poor physical and mental health, which can lead in turn to substance misuse and addiction.
    • Decisions about municipal layout, from t public transportation to the design of housing and green spaces, improve social interactions and enhance youth health.
  3. Enhance connections between youth and new and existing socially stimulating spaces
    • Local youth frequently cite a lack of things to do as a major contributing factor to their feelings of loneliness, and to the decision to leave the area after graduation.
    • Research indicates adolescence and young adulthood are particularly peak times for individuals to perceive social isolation and loneliness.
  4. Communications Campaign to reduce cannabis normalization and increase awareness of health risks from cannabis use
  5. Communications Campaign to reduce alcohol normalization and increase awareness of health risks from alcohol use
    • Emphasizing community attitudes and actions that don’t center around alcohol will raise social connection, improve mental health and reduce harms to young people from substances.

By increasing substance education for youth and adults, promoting mental health support, fostering youth leadership, and building prosocial connections, SPARK brings the community together to lift up young people and ignite a brighter future for Berkshire County!

SPARK works closely with many other organizations serving youth, including Railroad Street Youth Project, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, 18 Degrees, Berkshire United Way, Gladys Allen Brigham Center, The Brien Center,  Commonwealth CollaborativeBerkshire County Kids Place, Pittsfield Public Schools and many others. Additional mental health and substance use resources can be accessed here

For more information on SPARK and to be part of our efforts, please email Marie Brady and Nikki Lewis.