INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana organizations are continuing to address how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted our nation’s youth.

If there is one word that almost became overused in 2020 it would be unprecedented. The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to many aspects of our lives. But if you ask Whitney Nixon, service provider support director for the Indiana Youth Services Association, the word that best describes the effects of the pandemic on our youth is compounded.

“The circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus compounded the mental health struggles already experienced by Indiana,” said Nixon.

The CDC reports that in late June of 2020, 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and 13% reported having started or increased substance use. These numbers are nearly double the rates we would have expected before the pandemic.

“We’re now seeing a pretty significant increase for youth now experiencing some of those feelings of isolation and feelings of loneliness, feelings of disconnectedness,” said Nixon.

Those feelings are leading our nation’s youth to destructive coping methods. Among those is underage drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says research suggests a shift in motivation among some young adults from drinking to socialize to drinking to cope.

This is something that University of Indianapolis Assistant Police Chief of Police Hailey Padgett-Riley said she is seeing on their college campus.

“People were in isolation and coming back that that increases anxiety for people and exacerbates some of people’s underlying mental health issues so we’ve seen them kind of use substances to deal with what’s happening to them and how they’re feeling,” said Padgett-Riley.

Raising awareness of lifesaving law

That is where programs like Make Good Decisions comes into play.

Make Good Decisions brings awareness to Indiana’s Lifeline Law through a series of ads directed towards college students. This law gives amnesty from prosecution for underage drinking and many other drinking-related offenses to a person who calls to report a medical emergency, crime, or sexual assault.

“This piece of legislation passed because we were having and still have problems with underserved youth being over-served with alcohol,” said former State Senator Jim Merritt.

The organization includes families and people who have been affected by tragedies that could have been avoided if those involved were aware of the LifeLine law. This includes moms like Dawn Finbloom, who lost her son to alcohol poisoning when he was 18-years-old.

Friends at the party were afraid of getting in trouble but would have been protected under the law if they called.

“You don’t want to be that friend that loses your friend,” said Finbloom. “Brett’s friends that lost him and have really had some tough times. They would have had much better times going forward in life if they had known enough and been able to make that call or make that text message.”

While the law was in effect when Brett died, not many people knew about it. State Sen. Merritt says that is why they made the Make Good Decisions campaign.

“You can pass the best legislation in the world. But the best law but if no one knows about it, it really doesn’t make a difference,” said State Sen. Merritt.

On Wednesday, state officials met to discuss the impact of the latest Make Good Decisions campaign. The campaign ran from August 16 through November 7. During the campaign, the ads reached 1.2 million people on social media, with more than 10,000 reaching out for more information.

Padgett-Riley said they are thankful that more students are starting to get the message.

“Actually seeing it play out when a student calls for help and references the Lifeline law, that’s really the most rewarding thing for us as police officers,” said Padgett-Riley.

Building community culture to change mindsets

Angi Fiege is another mother who lost her child to a preventable situation. In 2013, Rachel was at a college party and fell down a flight of stairs, ultimately dying from her injuries.

“The tragedy of all this is that she potentially could have had her life saved had the students at the party recognized that she was seriously injured and gotten her help within a timely manner,” said Fiege.

Fiege said the people at the party were not bad people but were not aware that they could have called for help without the risk of getting in trouble due to the Lifeline Law.

Now, Fiege is reaching out to students through the organization Rachel’s First Week to equip them with the skills and knowledge to make good decisions. Fiege says it is important to look out for each other on the college campus.

“I think the important thing is that when you go to university or to college that you really need to develop a community culture where you take care of each other and look out for each other,” said Fiege. “This is sort of a growing process because this is part of becoming an adult.”

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on programs

Both organizations faced challenges during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. With schools going virtual, they were unable to physically get to the students to give them their message.

Nick Escobar, who has worked on the marketing team for Make Good Decisions, says their challenge was how to incorporate the isolation and anxiety that youth were facing.

“As COVID changed the lives of our audience are messaging changed with it to be more impactful and connected with our demographic, we discussed issues about isolation, quarantines depression and what to do if you have an emergency while underage drinking,” said Escobar.

Fiege said as they were unable to host in-person programs, they had to look for ways to still reach out to students. They moved to a podcast format, called SafeTea, where they discuss a topic, such as the bystander effect, and have a student tell a personal experience with the topic.

Continuing support for struggling students

Even after the initial call for help, people who benefited from the Lifeline Law may still need some support. Padgett-Riley says at The University of Indianapolis, the university reaches out to the student after they get the initial support to see what more can be done.

“It brings, really, to the forefront the underlying issues of that too,” said Padgett-Riley. “Being able to call for your friend who you’re worried about, who has maybe overdone it or is not going to class and is isolating. It gets us involved and we can forward that to the right people in our student affairs who can reach out and really be there for those students and just kind of figure out what the underlying issue is. Is it really substance abuse or is it something underlying with mental health that we can help with our counseling center here?”

Fiege says people need to continue to look out for each other, either at home, at college, or in the wider community.

“The lifeline law is just one tool that you can use to do the right thing and be a member of a community. Be that at college community, your hometown community, and you really don’t need a law to help you do the right thing. But if you do it’s there. It’s a tool to help you, but you know, look it up for your fellow man because that’s why we’re on this Earth.”

To read more about the Lifeline Law, visit the Indiana Youth Services Association’s Make Good Decisions website.