ST. ALBANS — Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked students at Bellows Free Academy (BFA) why students use drugs and what he and others can do to change that.

The answers included suggestions of better mental health services, reducing the stigma around seeking mental health services, and tightening regulation of drug companies.

Sanders, who was visiting with U.S. Attorney Tris Coffin, said this was a conversation, which could take place at any high school in Vermont. “The problems exist in any community in Vermont,” he said.

Before going to BFA, Sanders met with community members at the Family Center, some of whom described the drug problem in the area and their own use.

Coffin visits high schools around the state to show a film his office made about the 2009 death of University of Vermont student Will Gates who died of a heroin overdose. The film includes chilling interviews with Jordan Dougher, who sold Gates the heroin.

Dougher was himself an addict. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the sale he made to Gates.

Following the showing of the film, students began answering Sanders’ questions.

“I think family problems play a big role,” said Desiree. Only first names were given by the students. Mental health services need to be a priority, and receiving mental health treatment should be seen the same way as being treated for physical ailments, in her view. “No one tells a person with cancer to ‘get over it,'” she said.

“I think it’s stress and depression, these things that build up in the back of your head and you don’t know how to deal with,” said Hunter. People don’t want to seek mental health services because of the stigma, he suggested, adding, “We need to look more positively on people who are brave enough to say, ‘I’m going through something I can’t handle on my own.'”

Sanders concurred. “These problems are as real as a broken leg,” he said, “and we should not be afraid to talk about these issues.”

Another student suggested drugs are a “stress-reliever.”

Pointing to the financial struggles many families face, Sanders said, “Life isn’t easy in the year 2014 in America. Heroin does not get you away from these problems.”

Sanders acknowledged that everyone struggles with relationship problems and there may be problems at home between students and their parents, or between the parents themselves. “All of us have to figure out ways to deal with our problems that are not destructive,” he said.

When Sanders asked whether the students had friends to talk with, the response was mixed.

One student, Sebastian, described being at a party and trying to prevent a friend from taking drugs. He failed, and the two are no longer friends.

“I’ve seen too many people that I loved that have passed already due to these stupid decisions,” he said.

Sanders praised him for his efforts. “What he was doing was using peer pressure in a positive way,” said Sanders, noting that such things are not easy to do.

Caleb said that the causes of drug use aren’t controllable. “Show people the results,” he said. “Instead of bringing Sanders and high ranking people in, bring in people who have used.”

Coffin agreed, saying he usually brings Skip Gates, the father of the young man who overdosed to these events.

Pointing to the availability of prescription drugs – and their similarity to street drugs – Geran recommended tighter regulation of drug companies. “Restriction of what drug companies are allowed to do on the federal level would cut drug addiction,” he said.

 Prescription drug sales

At the Family Center, Sanders met with staff and area residents and staff from Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS). Attendees at that meeting discussed the sale and abuse of prescription medications.

Some described the sale of the ADHD medication Ritalin by parents and teens. The drug is similar to amphetamine in its effects.

One attendee suggested some patients receiving Suboxone treatment for addiction, sell the Suboxone.

Tanner, a young man at the meeting, said heroin and crack are the big drugs in St. Albans right now. Tanner said he had previously used heroin.

He questioned the use of Suboxone to treat heroin addiction. “It’s actually more addictive than heroin,” he said. Suboxone treatment, he said, substitutes one addiction for another.

Another attendee who had taken Suboxone to treat her addiction said, “It pretty much helps you ruin your life.”

The high from Suboxone is such that, “I looked for that every day,” she said.

Eventually, she beat her addiction on her own. “I had to make the decision to walk away from it,” she said, adding that beating addiction wasn’t easy.

She used drugs to escape her problems, but had initially been given drugs by friends.

“People not being able to get a job,” contributes to the sale of prescription medications, said one attendee.

There was general agreement that people sell their prescription drugs, because they don’t have another source of income.

Although NCSS is the designated treatment center for addiction in Franklin and Grand Isle counties the funds it has available for treatment is just $45,000 per year, said Danielle Lindley, who is in charge of parent and child programming for NCSS.

“My guess would be that if we had decent jobs at decent wages a significant number of these problems might not appear,” said Sanders.

Tanner spoke of the importance of having a future to ending drug use, “After I really got my focus down in school and what I wanted to do with my life, my use dropped off,” he said.