The North Dakota Department of Human Services Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division held a campaign throughout the fair through a commercial building booth, distributing materials encouraging people to Take a Closer Look at the effects of alcohol.
Through national data, North Dakota ranks highest in the nation for binge drinking in all age categories 12 and older, with North Dakota reporting a binge drinking rate of 32.6 percent as compared to the national average of 23.3 percent.
"North Dakota is No. 1 for binge drinking in all age categories, 12 and up. This is one area where we don't want to be No. 1. It's time for us to take a closer look at the issue," said Pamela Sagness, prevention administrator for the human services department's division of mental health and substance abuse services.
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - Amber Jensen, Region 2 prevention coordinator, seated, speaks to visitors at the Take a Closer Look booth set up at the North Dakota State Fair.
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - Pamela Sagness, prevention administrator for the human services department’s division of mental health and substance abuse services, left, and Amber Jensen, Region 2 prevention coordinator, worked together at the Take a Closer Look booth.
"A lot of people are saying to us that they don't want us to be No. 1," she added. "Through our time at the fair we've heard a lot of personal stories on how alcohol has affected people they know from people that are just concerned."
At the fair, Sagness and her colleagues distributed education materials stamped with a logo shaped as a bottle filled with text describing the effects of alcohol abuse including regret, poison, depression, loss of control, isolation, brain damage and death.
Sagness said that almost half of all arrests in the state are alcohol- and drug-related and 20 percent of arrests are DUIs. Alcohol is the primary drug of choice reported by clients participating in treatment at North Dakota Human Service Centers.
She said part of the reason for the high numbers may be the state's culture and attitudes surrounding alcohol use.
"North Dakota has the attitude of work hard, play hard," Sagness said. "Many have the attitude that kids will be kids and we did that when we were young. But we need to think about it. Do we really need to celebrate high school graduations with a keg?"
"Parents need to be aware of their attitudes and behaviors about alcohol, and how that message is being given to youth," she said.
Sagness said that her department's main goal is to create awareness to inspire action.
"Most of the problem is a lack of awareness," she said. "In a 2008 survey that we did, it revealed a moderate level of concern. A lot of people just aren't aware. Once they are aware, I think people are ready to take action. They are asking us what they can do about it when they've stopped by our booth at the fair."
For parents, speaking with their kids, being aware of their own attitudes and behaviors and making small changes to the environment that surrounds youth can make a difference.
"Part of what we do is looking at policy changes that can make a difference for youth," Sagness said. "You can tell 14 year olds not to drink, but it makes a bigger impact if we can limit their choices and their opportunities to drink."
"Even small communities can make changes that can make a difference. For example, if alcohol is going to be served at an event, the community could create a roped-off area where drinking is allowed so it's not allowed throughout the event," she added. "It's about changing the environment around the youth."
In addition, the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division offers materials to help parents and educators teach kids the refusal skills they need to stick by their decisions.
"We want to give kids real refusal tools, so they know how to get out of a situation where they feel uncomfortable," Sagness said. "Many of the kids are concerned about looking weak or not fitting in."
Substance abuse issues are not being overlooked on purpose by parents, Sagness added, who generally want to instill good values.
"People in North Dakota have great family values, and they want to be good parents," Sagness said. "Some of the substance abuse issues have just been overlooked, and part of that is awareness."
The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division is a leading resource of substance abuse information, and operates the North Dakota Prevention Resource and Media Center which offers free materials to individuals, schools, and community entities. For more information on substance abuse prevention, people can log on to (http://www.nd.gov/dhs/prevention).
Sagness is certain North Dakota's No. 1 status can be changed with greater awareness.
"I think it absolutely can be changed," Sagness said. "I think people will start to take action once they know about the issue. I think for parents it's time to say, 'Not our kids.' "