Drug education programs have come a long way since the “Just Say No” campaign of the ’80s. As a society, we understand a lot more about mental health, substance abuse, and addiction. We have learned that none of these are simple issues and words like “denial,” “intervention,” and “self-medicating” have become part of our common language. We have realized that talking frankly about drugs, sex, and similarly difficult topics is key to preventing adolescents and teenagers from making poor decisions and compromising their wellbeing. While guiding young people through their formative years so that they do not develop an addiction does not guarantee they never will struggle with chemical dependency, it is more likely they will continue to live their lives as healthy and happy adults.
Drug Education Starts at Home
These days, drug education programs consist of a number of novel approaches for educating and deterring substance abuse. First and foremost, the best drug education program begins in the home. Parents talking openly and honestly with their children about drugs, beginning at an early age, has proven to be one of the most effective strategies for preventing substance abuse and addiction. It should be a relaxed and friendly talk that is a genuine dialogue centered on keeping your child healthy, happy, and safe. Ask each other questions and always provide truthful answers. Share your personal experiences with drugs and alcohol and explain the factual, negative consequences of substance abuse, which include medical issues and legal problems. Do not exaggerate and do not lie.
Ongoing and Honest Conversations
Your discussion will evolve as your child matures, and it is important to remember that it is an ongoing conversation. New opportunities and temptations will present themselves numerous times and, unfortunately, with increasing frequency as your child enters adolescence and the teenage years. You also need to lead by example and not have your words contradict your actions. If you have shared stories about your past that conflict with your words to your child, admit that you can see how that might seem hypocritical, but reiterate why that was risky behavior and emphasize that your primary concern now is keeping your child safe and making sure he or she grows into a healthy, happy adult.
Show the Actual Lives of Drug Addicts
Another important component of drug education is showing what addiction truly looks like. Documentary movies and television, such as the popular television show Intervention and HBO’s Addiction Project, provide vivid illustrations of what addiction is. Actually seeing someone demonstrate addictive behavior, the impact on that person’s loved ones, and the story of how it happened connects with people in a unique way and certain moments stay with us in a distinctly different manner than those critical conversations that should happen before and after watching documentary programs focused on substance abuse and addiction.
Though not as engaging, photographs demonstrating the effects of drug abuse have also proven to be quite compelling. Seeing a healthy, fresh-faced teen full of possibility transform into someone who is unrecognizable and so physically unwell is heartbreaking. While it is a powerful experience to witness someone else struggle with addiction, physically seeing the potential consequences of drug abuse on yourself is an even more startling and eye-opening lesson. Face2Face is a program that was developed to demonstrate to teenagers how a meth addiction would change their appearance over the course of six months to three years. While it is safe to say no one enjoys seeing oneself look unattractive, teenagers are particularly attuned to their physical appearance. Viewing pictures of meth addicts who exhibit “meth mouth” and “meth face” is jarring, but seeing yourself in that condition, however, is a haunting and meaningful lesson.
Drug Education in Schools
The vast majority of American schools have implemented a drug education program, but approaches vary. Drug Abuse Resistance Education, more commonly referred to as D.A.R.E., is still one of the most popular programs in the U.S. This police officer led, drug education program is implemented in 75% of American school districts and operates in 43 countries. In the past decade, it has received some criticism for its zero-tolerance approach, and its efficacy has been questioned. That said, D.A.R.E. has revamped its curriculum to be more interactive and, in their words, less didactic. D.A.R.E. emphasizes education, honesty, and developing the skills to cope with a myriad of situations involving substance abuse, peer pressure, and violence. D.A.R.E. also fosters the relationship between law enforcement and the community.
A Realistic Look at Drugs
For many drug education programs, there has been a decided shift in thinking, which acknowledges that a discussion focused on zero tolerance is not necessarily realistic. While it is important to discourage all substance abuse, for a productive and meaningful conversation, acknowledging experimentation and trying to turn that into a teachable moment to deter further substance abuse and experimentation is proving to be an effective approach. These drug education programs focus on interactive discussions, role-playing, and teacher-guided exchanges between students rather than exchanges solely between a teacher and his or her students. Just like many sex education programs, abstinence is strongly encouraged, but because that is often not the reality teens face, students are being provided information and tools to help them manage any substance abuse encounters, including coping and decision-making skills similar to those taught by D.A.R.E.
The common component to all of these approaches is unflinching honesty and a refusal to live in denial. Even zero-tolerance focused programs acknowledge that it is not so easy to “just say no” and these issues are far more complex than doing the right thing and being a good kid. While drug education programs are focused on children, as adults who care for children, either as parents or in a professional capacity, it is important to continue to educate yourself about trends in substance abuse and remain informed. Beyond keeping current and having a continuous dialogue with your children about substance abuse and all of the major issues they face as they grow into adults, the most important thing you can do to prevent substance abuse is to remain engaged in your children’s lives and to refuse to succumb to denial. If you observe your children acting unusually, be proactive. Do not ignore it. Talk to your child and, even more importantly, truly listen to what they say. Only then can you fully realize your potential as a parent and enable your children to fully realize their potential as people.