Youth can learn healthy coping skills to avoid drugs, alcohol misuse

Youth resiliency program educators, such as Whitney Bakarich at Northwest Colorado Health, use a variety of tools including glitter jars to help students learn to self-regulate their nervous system.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

With the documented increased numbers of drug overdoses, drug overdose deaths and heavy drinking across the Yampa Valley, experts say it is important to teach youth how to deal with stress and trauma in life rather than kids turning to alcohol, marijuana and drugs to try to numb their feelings.

The 2022-23 Youth Resiliency Snapshot from Northwest Colorado Health notes that 33% of children 17 and younger report suffering at least one adverse childhood experience that is stressful or traumatic. If left unaddressed, those experiences can have lasting effects on a child’s health and well-being and lead to negative outcomes such as substance misuse, suicidal ideation and job loss.

Key local organizations are teaching youth healthy coping and self-regulation skills by employing everything from music play and therapeutic art, to small group educational sessions, to pairings with trusted adult mentors. Together, the efforts help kids learn how to cope with struggles, frustrations and pressures through healthy avenues.

“Youth have access to a lot of great programming and resources in our community to help build resiliency skills and provide protective factors allowing them to better navigate adverse experiences without turning to drugs, alcohol and marijuana to numb their feelings,” said Lindsey Simbeye, a Steamboat Springs resident who works for the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

One key program in that prevention work is the Youth Resiliency Program at nonprofit Northwest Colorado Health. Counselor Whitney Bakarich, the youth resiliency manager since June 2021, oversees small groups, classroom presentations, community music events and adult trainings in Routt and Moffat counties. In 2022, the resiliency program recorded 6,970 encounters with youth and hosted 475 small groups.

The program works to build self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-awareness in youth through creative expression and facilitates small groups to help youth build nervous system self-regulation. It provides children a safe place to learn about emotions related to change and helps kids connect with peers facing similar loss.

When she leads a small group lesson, Bakarich starts with asking students to check in with their bodily self-regulation by pausing, breathing slowly, observing with their five senses and figuring out how they are functioning at that time. For example, if children are in the red zone, they may be mad, wiggly, cannot sit still or have racing thoughts. If youth are in the blue zone, they are shut down. If youth are in the green zone, they are regulated in a healthy state.

Resiliency program educators use a wide variety of tools ranging from fidget toys, to drums and keyboards, to glitter jars to help students regulate their individual nervous system.

Playing with many types of “fidget” toys in one technique students can use to learn how to calm their individual nervous system and learn self-regulation skills. Students can take their pulse reading before and after the play.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“Every day we provide outreach services, support groups and education to youth who are coping with adversities such as divorce, family addiction, violence, death, illness or relocation,” according to the resiliency program website.

In the Yampa Valley, building coping skills in youth is a team effort with help from many organizations such as Partners for Youth and collaborative programs with school districts and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Colorado.

Heidi Brown, Partners for Youth empowerment program director, said the nonprofit offers mentoring and empowerment learning with a focus on increasing protective factors, which in turn can reduce the likelihood of a youth developing a substance use disorder. Brown said those protective factors include: a sense of belonging and power, connection to trusted adults, sense of value and self-esteem, civic engagement, social and communication skills, future goals, and participation in activities, extracurricular and positive environments.

Part of that comprehensive drug education is youth-driven through three Youth Action Councils in Steamboat, Hayden and Moffat County.

High school junior Makena James, a member of the Steamboat Springs Teen Council, said the teen leaders work to provide fun, safe and sober activities that provide opportunities for prosocial participation so that youth do not turn to unhealthy substances as a coping mechanism.

“One of the biggest sources of addiction is using as a coping mechanism,” James said. “When it becomes a coping mechanism that you are relying on for happiness and escape, that’s when it becomes borderline for addiction.

“Typically, when people are struggling with immense stress and social problems, or with depression, anxiety and mental health issues, and they don’t feel like there is any other way, that’s when they turn to substances.”

James said the high-performance vibe in Steamboat of academics, athletics and extra-curricular demands can create a high-stakes environment and increase social pressures. That atmosphere might lead some students to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

“Youth are held up in a very high standard in this town,” James said. “There is just this standard that kids from Steamboat have to compare themselves to and the community compares themselves to, so even if there is not direct pressure, there is just this standard of excellence.”

James said the best coping skill she tries to impart to fellow youth is “to put things in perspective when they are at their lowest” and “to remind them that things will get better over time.”

The Youth Resiliency Program at Northwest Colorado Health, led by Whitney Bakarich, uses music play including drums as a tool to help children.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today
How to learn about youth resiliency

Students at Steamboat Springs or Yampa Valley high schools can sign up for a free eight-week group to learn about trauma-informed resiliency through art and music that runs 2-3 p.m. Wednesdays starting Oct. 4. Email

Parents and caring adults can learn about youth resiliency efforts by attending the “Building Community: Together We Thrive” parent connection summit 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 8 at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat. Sponsored by the Routt County Youth Services Coalition, the event will include free childcare and food with registration on the coalition website at

All students ages kindergarten to college in Routt and Moffat can take advantage of resiliency programming including music jam sessions for all ability levels. Learn more at under the “What We Do” then “Prevention Services” tabs.

Rise Above Colorado at and is a statewide resource for substance abuse prevention to help youth make healthy connections and decisions. Rise Above teaches that protective factors for youth include: positive connection with family, peers and community; hobbies and interests; positive coping, stress and management skills; trusted adults in their lives; and goals for the future.

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