Addiction and Abstinence in today’s America and the battle against substance abuse are at a critical cross roads.  What follows is not a comprehensive plan, but a high level look at the shift in focus that is needed in our Schools’ approach to the problem of substance abuse.

After decades of “Just Say No” to drugs while the substance abuse counterculture increases; the jails are full of those convicted of possession and use charges, not to mention all of the crimes related to being under the influence or supporting a substance abuse habit after hearing that message.  There is no improvement in statistics, in fact they are worse; it’s time for a change.

I recently got my hands on a current copy (copyright 2015) of a Children’s Educational Coloring & Activity Book and the front page says, “SMART KIDS SAY NO TO DRUGS”.  Inside there is a page that says, “So why would anyone be dumb enough to take drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke, which mess absolutely everything up?”

I have a couple of issues with this.

  1. I went off the charts as far as IQ when I was in elementary school. I scored the highest the Los Angeles Armed Forces Enlistment and Entry Station (AFEES) had seen in 20 years when I joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17.  I was offered, in Boot Camp, a chance to go to Quantico, VA to Preparatory School and then Annapolis Naval Academy because my scores were so high.  I turned that down and was assigned directly to Aerial Navigation School (the only time in the history of the Marine Corps) from Boot Camp.  I was a seventh grade dropout and started getting high at the age of 10. Smart Kids don’t do drugs didn’t apply.
  2. If you tell kids that, and they do drugs, drink or smoke, they are labeled stupid and carry that reinforcement of a good reason to have no self-esteem into addiction making recovery that much harder.  That message just isn’t right.

For me it had nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with not feeling like I thought I should.  I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere, I didn’t feel accepted for who I was, I felt like I was different.  I felt like I had to do all manner of crazy things to fit in and the things I did weren’t me they were driven by some misguided need.  It doesn’t matter why I felt the way I did for the purpose of this discussion, only that a combination of factors made me feel uncomfortable with being me.  Once I was introduced to drugs, and being able to numb that feeling and feeling like I now had something in common with other people, I felt at home.  For a while.

On top of my discomfort with being myself I grew up in an era (the 1960s) where one group of people (hippies) were glorifying drug use and another (the establishment) ran adds that showed that smoking Marijuana would make you go crazy and kill people.  After smoking a joint I knew that was a lie so I had an immediate distrust of authority.  Those that are in authority must be honest and have a message that can be trusted.

I don’t believe that telling our youth of any age to say no to drugs has a positive impact on more than a few, if any.  And I believe that there are precursors and signs we can watch for to know in advance who is at risk for drug abuse and addiction.

Those who suffer learning disabilities like ADD and ADHD, victims of abuse, children that are withdrawn or over boisterous, kids dealing with guilt or shame, kids who feel like their parents don’t have time for them, adrenaline seekers, just to name a few.  These are the kids that are feeling different, and want to not feel that way.

The approach must change and come away from just say no to drugs and become “Just Say Yes to You!”  Just because you feel different or out of place doesn’t mean you don’t belong.  There are others who feel just like you do and there is a way out.  You are important.  You are loved. Identifying these individuals early and addressing their troubles and their needs is key.

The message should be that there may be some temporary relief or fun in altering the way you feel but the risk is too great.  There is probably a great feeling jumping out of an airplane with no parachute, but the end of the ride is disastrous.

A school assembly or even smaller focused presentations by someone in recovery, that has taken a wrong turn but found their way back can be invaluable as the youth may hear something in the presentation that they relate to that happened before the problems started and hear that getting themselves refocused before their trouble begins may be easier than they thought.   This approach is more easily accepted by youth than the Just Say No campaign.

Another component that needs to be introduced is aimed at the youth that are already headed down that path.  Safe Harbor.

While Zero Tolerance must be enforced as far as drugs on campus, or youth determined to be under the influence, there can also be a Safe Harbor provision and approach to students that says, “If you come forward and admit you have a problem, we are not going to judge you, jail you, or expel you; we are going to help you find your way back.”  It is in most cases, after all, that acceptance is what these youth need and want, so to shun and punish is counterproductive to the problem.  To let them know they can safely come forward and be received and helped in an attitude of care and love changes the game.

In a New York Times article, written September 29, 2016, Maia Szalavitz discusses Preventure, a new approach to identifying youth that are at risk of addiction, which has not only resulted in dramatic reductions in addiction and substance abuse, but lowered the incidence of depression and reported anxiety in schools in Europe, Australia, and Canada.

“Early trials show that personality testing can identify 90 percent of the highest risk children, targeting risky traits before they cause problems”.

This approach requires new teacher training and personality testing at early ages, as well as follow up planning and treatment for those who are identified as “at highest risk”.

We need to be honest about the actual effect and progression of what drug use and abuse will do.  Our youth need to hear, and hear it again and again, that no one retires after a life of drug use, and has good stories to tell or talks about how good their life has been, but the world is full of people who either bemoan how bad life has been because they have been unable to get clean, or how much better life has become since they did get clean.

We must also identify the dangers found in all mind altering agents not limiting our presentations to the chemical of the moment.  It doesn’t matter whether the big problem is currently opiates, meth, crack, or alcohol.  If we do that we are just playing Whack-a-mole.

If we want to bring down the numbers of addicts, alcoholics, and criminal record holders in our population in the coming generation we need to have a better understanding of what will keep them from starting, and what will help them come back quickly if they do start down that dark and destructive road.   Being vigilant, observant, and engaged with our youth is where we must begin and understanding the dynamics of addiction are a must if we want change.

Parenting and familial involvement will be covered in the next installment of this series.  Topics will include enabling, co-dependency, and tough love.  Comments are appreciated.  Please share if you enjoyed the article.

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