The 30 or so teens who participated in this year’s Summer Film Institute organized by the nonprofit Project AWARE had a lot in common, such as their ages, fashions and taste in music and movies. They also seemed joined by their individual juxtapositions of hurt and promise.

One had cuts up and down her arm, some fresh and still bright red. Another told of her regular escapes to a nearby church’s youth group, not necessarily because she needed religion, but because it was a fun, safe place away from adults who regularly abuse drugs and alcohol. Another’s eyes brimmed with tears as she recounted heartbreak over a boy who treated her disrespectfully, yet she somehow still loved.

There was both hurt and hope: They shared many innovative ideas for how they could each play a vital role in addressing Maine’s drug abuse problem.

Project AWARE holds workshops, presentations and the film institute at high schools throughout the state. Students create high-quality, dramatic, educational movies and public service announcements. Its mission is to “empower young people to lead.” Organizers and students believe the movies they create have the potential to change perceptions of social issues.

Adults have been lecturing students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol for a long time. While necessary to set boundaries, it’s also important — and effective — for young people to talk to one another.

Students participating in extracurricular activities not only take on leadership roles, they bring those skills to the school at large and leave better prepared for adulthood. Filmmaking offers real-life skills that can be transferred to careers, but it also gives students an “out” or a reason to stay drug free. It allows them to talk peer to peer about issues they all know exist.

This year’s film institute students weren’t shy about sharing their experiences either as drug users or as witnesses to friends and family members who almost or did lose lives because of substance abuse. But they also said the problem couldn’t be fixed entirely by teachers, parents or counselors. It had to come from them, and it had to involve more than a message of “drugs are bad.”

About 8,000 Maine adolescents who reported using an illicit drug in a yearlong period needed, but did not receive, treatment for drug problems, according to a 2009 report from the Office of Applied Studies, a branch of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 7,000 needed but did not receive treatment for alcohol problems. Once hooked, the addiction can last a lifetime.

Maine needs to do more to help stop the problem before it starts. Extracurricular activities, such as filmmaking, teach students self-discipline, organization and time management. What’s more, they can educate the wider community.

As part of the BDN’s MaineFocus initiative to address substance abuse, we will hold a film festival in February 2014 for students across the state. Students are being asked to create films for the MaineFocus Film Festival based on the prompt, “How has drug abuse affected your life or the lives of people around you?” To learn more about how your school can participate, visit