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Teen Substance Abuse

An Interview with Jeff Wolfsberg - Part 2

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It’s important to note that adolescent high-risk behaviors cluster. Meaning, where there is drinking, it is safe to assume that there may be other drug use, sexual activity, and other risk-taking. Therefore, drug education programs can no longer be conducted in isolation, but rather integrated into a comprehensive wellness strategy which views teen alcohol and other drug as behaviors existing on a continuum of risk.

This may sound somewhat self-promotional, but I suggest schools work with a certified prevention specialist. The science around school-based wellness programming is complicated and requires a professional to perform assessments, design programs, and maintain institutional momentum. An overlooked aspect of a drug education program’s efficacy is the disposition of the instructor. A well-designed program delivered by an instructor with improper training and/or lack of enthusiasm for the material will not produce positive outcomes. This is another reason to work with professional instructors with training and commitment to the material.

Drug use by teens is often categorized as adolescent rebellion, thrill seeking or peer pressure. These are convenient labels that often minimize and deny the connectedness of teen alcohol and other drug use with adult social systems like family, school, community, and culture. Teen drug use is unique and needs to be addressed, however; effective drug education programs address teen drug use from an ecological viewpoint that doesn’t scapegoat teen substance use.

A school cannot change what is does not measure. Often missing in the planning stages of a drug education program is building in assessment and evaluation opportunities. Performing a school-wide assessment of a range of student behaviors and attitudes allows prevention professionals and administrators to design programs based on real data and measurable outcomes. Some areas to measure are alcohol and other drug use, school connectedness, sexual behaviors, stress, sleep patterns, and parental controls. Schools need to let go of binary thinking regarding drug education outcomes and stop determining program success strictly on a “use” “no use” basis. It is unproductive and not consistent with what we know about behavioral change. The goals of a drug education program should be to support and encourage those students who are making the choice to remain alcohol and other drug free. And, for those students who will not make that choice, guide and intervene in such a manner as to not allow their use to escalate into dependence.

School-based prevention is one of three strategies we use in this country to control illicit drug use – the other two being enforcement and treatment. There has been a lot of research analyzing the cost-effectiveness of enforcement and treatment, but very little regarding prevention until recently. School-base drug education programs have the added benefit by not only reducing the use of illicit drugs but licit drug use like alcohol and tobacco as well. Research has shown for every dollar invested in prevention, seven dollars are saved on enforcement and treatment.

5. What are some of the warning signs parents can look for?

Since this article is geared towards a private school audience, it is useful to recognize that there are differences among private and public school students. Private school students are often socially sophisticated and highly motivated. These attributes can masks significant impairment issues such as developing addictions, anxiety, depression, and other assorted self-destructive behaviors. Traditional hallmarks of the troubled teen such as falling grades, delinquent behavior, and a change in physical appearance may be absent in private school students.

Private school parents have a hypersensitivity to privacy, which can fuel a reluctance to engage the school’s mental health resources. Private school parents can enable their teen’s alcohol and other drug use by defending and rescuing their children from consequences that could have a curative effect on alcohol misuse or other drug use.

Some signs to look for that can be attributed to both substance use and mental health issues are:

  • Achievement that is absent of joy
  • Over-developed need for privacy
  • Over-protective of their cell phone
  • Abnormal resistance to family values and/or family time
  • Angry outburst
  • Unaccounted for money
Parents should not discount their intuition or “feeling” something is wrong. The best protective factors against teens developing problems with substances are a loving and connected relationship with their parents.
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