There’s no doubt that schools play an important role in prevention of drug and alcohol abuse, yet schools in most western countries fall short when it comes to providing effective addiction education and prevention for students. Many countries outside of North America and Europe offer no education or prevention at all, primarily because of powerful stigma that continues to surround addiction. Addiction is a disease that harms people in countless ways, and prevention remains the most powerful tool.
NIDA (the National Institute for Drug Abuse) indicates that some children as young as 12 or 13 are abusingdrugs or alcohol, which means they probably started experimenting even earlier. If substance use persists, adolescents become more heavily involved and may advance to full-blown addiction, which is more difficult to address and often requires formal drug and alcohol treatment or rehab.
The National Institute of Health cites similar statistics: Initiation to alcohol rises rapidly beginning at age 10 and peaks in early adolescence. By age 13 or 14, nearly half of all students report they have consumed alcohol at least once.
According to NIDA, intervention before high school is critical. For some kids, drug and alcohol education means convincing them to never start, for others it means use is delayed or decreased.
In the United States, the government mandates that schools receiving federal funding must use sound, evidence-based prevention programs, yet only 35 percent of American schools have implemented programs with demonstrated effectiveness. Prevention programs often lack quality or tend to be sporadic and inconsistent.
Many schools rely on fear-based, “war on drugs rhetoric infused” approaches that feature crashed cars or bloody accident scenes, or they may invite speakers to talk about the ways they have lost loved ones to drugs and alcohol. Such tactics can be meaningful but there is no indication they lead to long-lasting change. In fact, such limited, one-time events often serve to pique interest in drugs and alcohol.
Some schools implement “zero tolerance” programs or even drug testing, which are counterproductive without support services and opportunities for students to reconnect with the school and community for support and learning from the experience. While the physical aspect of addiction is often addressed, most prevention programs fail to tackle the emotional and social aspects of addiction or the many ways addiction can turn a bright future into a life in shambles.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers. However, schools can implement effective, evidence-based programs. Ideally, programs should begin as early as pre-school. As students mature, programs should promote emotional awareness, self-control, self-esteem and above all, social skills, empathy and caring for others. Deprived youngsters are especially at risk, as are more affluent children from privileged backgrounds with no positive role models for identity, social behaviour and generally, life skills.
Students should thus be taught social and communication skills, practical problem-solving techniques and ways to resist peer pressure. Simply telling kids that drugs and alcohol are dangerous or advising youth to “just say no” tend to oversimplify the situation and won’t convince students not to use. Effective education requires tools that students can use in real life situations.
One-size-fits-all programs are ineffective. Instead, programs should be age- and gender-appropriate. Programs should include ways to track outcomes and should be updated regularly to adapt as times change. Programs should also include parent and teacher support and training that helps educators motivate students for positive behavior and achievement.
NIDA notes that families play the most important role in drug and alcohol prevention. Effective prevention programs include family-based programs that provide drug and alcohol information and teach parents how to set clear, consistent rules, deal with their own dysfunction and reflect on their influence on their children’s lives. Ideally, prevention programs ensure each student has at least one caring adult inside or outside the family. Some schools implement very successful youth mentoring programs.