School Antidrug Campaigns Overlook the Real Reasons why Kids Take Drugs

An article in the New York Times looks at a new style of school antidrug campaign, and concludes that the revolutionary new model shows far greater promise than the drug education programs of yesteryear. The article is written by a journalist who was an opioid addict before even reaching drinking age, despite middle school drug education programs. She was exposed to the old-style D.A.R.E and “Just say no” campaigns, and as far as she was concerned, they may even have promoted her drug use.

She’s not the only one to believe this. Studies have shown that these programs were “largely ineffective”, but a new program, named Preventure, has been shown to be effective. What is it doing, that these older campaigns failed to address?

The four real reasons why kids take drugs

Education programs that show kids the risks of taking drugs, and the traditional scare-tactics that were used, have been shown to have little effect in reducing substance abuse among kids of school age. Instead, Preventure looks at the personality traits that place children at risk.

Research has shown that 90% of at-risk children can be identified through personality testing before they ever touch drugs.  There are many more children who will try substances and never become addicted to them, but what are the traits of kids that will not only try drugs, but become addicts?

Preventure identifies four traits exhibited by at-risk children:

  • Sensation-seeking
  • Impulsiveness
  • Anxiety sensitivity
  • Hopelessness

Even bright youngsters who do well at school and participate in extra-mural activities could be at risk. The image of the “loser” children turning to drugs has been debunked.

Kids who turn to drugs will seldom do so for all four reasons. For example, those who use substances out of feelings of hopelessness have different drives than those who are simply thrill-seekers. Clearly, different prevention strategies have to be applied.

Three of the four at-risk categories are linked to psychological disorders

The only one of the four categories of children identified as being “at risk” that isn’t linked to psychological issues are the sensation seekers. These are people who are predisposed to seek out intense experiences. As a result, they are more likely to enjoy using drugs.

On the other hand, impulsiveness is often linked to ADHD, anxiety sensitivity is linked to anxiety disorders, and feelings of hopelessness are linked to depression.

How Preventure works

Preventure programs begin with teacher training. Psychologists train teachers in therapy techniques that can be used to combat the psychological issues that may lead to addiction in the future. Later, school children are given a personality test aimed at identifying those most at risk. After about three months, kids are offered an opportunity to attend workshops aimed at “channeling personality towards success”, but only a limited number of places are available. The workshops sound so attractive that most kids will apply for a place, but ultimately, only those who are at risk are accepted, and they are placed in workshops designed to address their particular risk factors.

They aren’t told how selection works. To most of them, it seems to be quite random. Educators are told to be honest if children should actually ask about selection criteria, but generally this doesn’t happen. The scientists who designed Preventure says that profiling and labelling are avoided lest informing kids that they are “high risk” should turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the workshops, kids are taught cognitive behavioral techniques that will help them to deal with emotional and behavioral issues, and they are encouraged to use them as tools that will promote their success.

Is Preventure effective?

Eight randomized trials have shown that Preventure reduces drug use, binge drinking and regular alcohol use. A JAMA study found that Preventure reduced underage drinking among pupils by as much as 29% overall (including kids not attending workshops). When examining figures for children who did attend the workshops, drinking was reduced by 43%.

Experts believe that the program went further than equipping at-risk kids with valuable skills. They believe that the training given to teachers also had a role to play. Teachers were able to deal more effectively with at-risk children, and understood them better, helping the kids to feel more supported and connected at school.

We learn from children

The most interesting thing about Preventure and the studies that have shown the program to be effective, is that it focuses on the real reasons why people of any age may be drawn to drug use. Simply trying to scare people off doesn’t help. If it did, nobody would use illegal drugs for fear of the consequences. Instead, we have to consider the deep-seated psychology of drug use, and the fact that most users are seeking comfort or an escape from painful psychological issues that leave them feeling isolated or fearful.

“Just say no?” as many will attest, this message is not helpful as a coping strategy.

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