As a father who lost his 17 year old son to an accidental drug overdose in 2008 I have made it a big mission in my life to speak to teens. I tell them about the healthy and happy childhood of Justin Veatch, about his
exceptional talent in music, about the puzzling transformation he experienced at age 14 when he began to experiment with marijuana. I also tell them how we, as parents, were in the dark about his activities as he later turned to opioid painkillers. I talk about Justin’s stint in rehab that seemed successful as he was about to enter his senior year at Yorktown High School, and then that awful morning three months later when he never woke up in his room after sniffing heroin through a straw.
After Justin died we did many things to honor his memory by helping others. We created The Justin Veatch Fund which has awarded 16 scholarships since 2009 and created music programs for other young people like Justin. We also released Justin’s music in an album that includes seven covers of his songs from other musical artists, some of whom had been an inspiration to Justin. But nothing has been as important as my talk to teens, a talk that at first I felt I could never do. As of this spring I have delivered “A Message from Justin” to more than 21-thousand young people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Every community is vulnerable
In my talk I cite research that shows 20 percent of 8th graders have experimented with marijuana, 20 percent of teens have admitted to abusing opioid painkillers, 28 percent say they know someone who uses ecstasy. I am often speaking to a room containing several hundred teens, realizing that perhaps one of every five are experimenting with drugs just like Justin did.
Letters of concern and hope
Recently I had the opportunity to speak to several classes of 8th graders at a middle school in New Jersey and several of these young people wrote letters to me afterward. Even though the studies I’ve quoted suggest 20 percent of these 13 year olds were experimenting the content of these letters brings a personal face to those statistics.
Jeremy wrote, “Thank you for coming to share your sad story. I am very sorry about your son and I have learned so many things from him….your lessons were inspiring and I will remember not to take drugs in the future.”
But Jill wrote, “Honestly, I thought that your presentation at first wasn’t going to change my mind about drugs. I always have thought that I would do drugs and that it wouldn’t be a big deal. I have been offered drugs many times, but have said no because I knew I would be going home with my dad and I didn’t want him to know. Truthfully, I still think that I will do drugs but I will be extra careful about what I do now.”
The focus of the end of my talk is to persuade teens to change their attitudes about the risks of drugs and realize how easy it is to overdose. I also tell them that they need to assume a role as a critical part of their peers’ safety nets, that they should not wait for others to take action when they see a friend in trouble with drugs.
Kylie wrote, “I know a friend who is on drugs. And you made me have the courage to stand up to this friend. I will try my best to make sure this person quits”.
And then Giavanna wrote, “I have a friend that I have seen high numerous times. It has really started to worry me and I always felt like I should say something. Thanks to you I think I am.”
And Kevin’s letter brought more hope. “With your speech, you have inspired all of us to never do drugs and I believe most of the people sitting in this classroom will never do drugs because of your speech.”
The thought that “A Message from Justin,” can be making a difference to these teens gives me the resolve to never stop talking.
NOTE: The story of Justin Veatch and the Veatch family’s response to his loss is told in the documentary film “Whispering Spirits” which premiered in November, 2014, at The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Organizations can arrange to show the film at no charge by contacting director/producer Sean Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the work of The Justin Veatch Fund is available on their website.