Reach Them While They’re Young

A study cited in the report estimated that every dollar spent on effective, school-based prevention programs can save an estimated $18 in costs related to problems later in life. Yet, only 8-to-10 percent of schools throughout the country teach formal prevention programs. Considering that the majority of people who meet substance use disorder criteria started using in adolescence, this is really nothing more than institutionalized insanity.

Parents unsure how to deal with this Issue

But let’s start at home. Unfortunately, many parents are unsure of how to deal with this issue. It’s kind of like when your kid asks about sex – ‘what’s the right thing to say?’ In addition, parents are often sending mixed messages. They drink, smoke or pop pills themselves. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Children also see the glorified use of drugs and alcohol in TV shows, movies, music, and on the internet. As a result, many parents do little or nothing in the form of educating their kids about ‘prevention’, when it is they who can truly have the greatest impact. All parents should seriously consider what more can be done, as early as possible. Sadly, most of us won’t address the subject until our child is already addicted, and by then it’s invariably too late since studies show that it can take as long as 8 or 9 years to achieve recovery after an addict begins treatment. Prevention itself is the ideal solution because it intervenes before addiction has a chance to take hold. However, we are emotionally hamstrung by unsuccessful past attempts through Public Service Announcements (PSA), which undermine our confidence that it can truly be effective. I’m sure we all remember the Reagan era slogan of “Just say no!” Then there was the commercial with the egg frying in a pan, representing our brain on drugs, and who can forget D.A.R.E.? The results of those campaigns could never be quantified as drug use and addiction continued to grow. Moreover, campaigns like those cast a wide net, messaging potential addicts and non-addicts alike. Were those PSAs giving us the most bang for our buck?

Community Involvement

What has been proven to work are the nuts and bolts community based interventions. If we want to build effective, sustainable prevention across age groups and populations, communities need to build coalitions to account for local needs and priorities. Different approaches work better depending on the community. For example, the inner city might have more success reaching youth via sports oriented community centers, while Appalachia might do better reaching out through churches. We also need to select the right messengers to do the community outreach. If those teaching prevention can’t effectively communicate, the importance and value of prevention will fall upon deaf ears. It’s important to note that even with ‘localization’, each program needs to be grounded in the same format, covering all the basics of prevention education, clinically referred to as Evidence Based Intervention. However, from there, the programs can and should be flexible in how to reach out to the local community, to be most influential.

It’s never too early or too late to prevent substance misuse and related programs. The Report evaluated programs for youths as young as ages of a few months to years, to programs designed for ‘Older Adults’, classified as 60 and older. The thing is, even infants and newborns must be considered. Not because they are learning bad habits, but because many are affected by the habits of their parents who use even while the baby is still in the womb.

The best time to start prevention education is when children reach school age. Young kids are blank slates and impressionable, it’s the perfect opportunity to instill good habits so they become routine. One program called Raising Healthy Children, targets grades one through six and combines social learning, classroom instruction and management training for teachers. Equally important, they help train parents to focus on in-home problems and how to better communicate with their children on the subject.

Once kids reach adolescence, parents and schools are fighting against peer groups for the hearts and minds of our youth. If we’re lucky, our children have solid friendships and engage in healthy activities. All too often that’s not the case. This is the age when our youth feel invincible and don’t well consider the long-term consequences of drugs scrambling their brains and ruining their overall health. However, even while the challenge is harder, they can still be reached. Internet programs are proving effective for this age group, but typically in combination with live-re-enforcement from a therapist or through activity oriented support groups. They can also be helped when shepherded in a positive direction towards things they like. There’s no reason why sports activities, computer clubs and local youth centers can’t also be messaging the huge importance of living a healthy lifestyle. The message will get through if it’s consistent and persistent.

We’re RecoveryBound

At Kipu, as part of our Recovery Bound program, we’re starting to build an entertaining, multimedia, mobile (smart phone based) curriculum, including exercises, clever assignments and rewards to help people of all ages, but which will be particularly helpful for adolescents and young adults. Weekly surveys help in specifically targeting everyone’s unique needs in a language and manner he or she understands. We’ll also be designing formats to foster online group support, re-enforce positive social behaviors and identify children who, given certain warning signs, might be particularly ‘at risk’. We can barely peel today’s youth away from their cell phones and smart pads, so we need to reach out to them on their level and in their environment to truly be effective.

Get this; one-in-four Americans who begin using any addictive substance, including alcohol, before 18, become addicted, as opposed to only one-in-twenty-five for people who begin at 21 or older. Other studies have demonstrated that substance use (alcohol and drugs) escalates dramatically across adolescence, peaks in a person’s twenties and declines thereafter. We have been given the roadmap of how to best attack the problem. Now it’s just a matter of resources and will. As parents, we need to get involved and directly broach this issue with our kids. As communities, we need to better communicate with our youth, on their level and when they are engaging in their other interests. As a nation, we need to re-enforce the institutions that can and should be doing better at convincing our kids not to use. Prevention is no longer an option, it’s a necessity.