Four years ago, Haverhill City Councilor Colin F. LePage spoke to 400 eighth graders about making healthy decisions around substance abuse and addiction, and on Friday, LePage returned to check in on those same students—now Haverhill High School seniors—for a check-up.
Touted as a “life skills” assembly,” LePage’s hourlong talk—facilitated by HHS’ Jon Mangion and Andy Polanco—included statistics on drug and alcohol abuse as well as teen suicide. Much of the conversation centered around vaping, which LePage, like Gov. Charlie Baker last month, declared a “health emergency.”
When polled by LePage, most of the seniors in attendance readily admitted to drinking coffee but not smoking or vaping. According to the local policymaker, 1,300 people have been hospitalized from a vaping-related illness in recent months. Twenty-nine deaths have been reported.
LePage used such statistics as a teachable moment. “Your health is your life for however long you have it, and if you don’t take care of it, you may not have it,” he said.
As LePage’s wife Kerrie and daughter Killian looked on, LePage shifted his focus to family as he had back in 2016 with the same students. He told the story of a Bradford boy named Christopher, who attended Hunking and graduated from Haverhill High in 2002. According to LePage, Christopher smoked marijuana and cigarettes before being prescribed a 60-day supply of painkillers for a broken arm. That led to an addiction that landed him in rehab and resulted in two overdoses. One of those overdoses in 2015, said LePage, was fatal.
LePage knows, he reminded students, because he is Christopher’s father.
“I never imagined I’d be here today talking to you about this,” he said. “It can happen to anybody.”
The councilor also touched on the importance of working through grief and developing coping strategies. To do so, he related the story of his younger son, Sean LePage, also a Haverhill High graduate, who died in 2009 after being struck by a train.
“We all need help. I do, I’m never afraid to admit it. There’s times I have good days, and times I have bad days. Don’t be afraid to reach out,” said LePage. “If you know someone, don’t be afraid to offer help. Take care of yourself.”
Haverhill’s Youth Council recently conducted a survey of nearly 600 students, with 64 percent of those polled interested in additional resources related to mental and physical health, LePage said. Fifty-eight percent wish there were improved access to social workers, therapists and health teachers. More about the study is expected to be presented at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.