Adolescent Substance Abuse and School Policy (page 3)
Jeanette Friedman, C. S. W., Director of the Impact Program at Phoenix House, discussed aspects of adolescent drug and alcohol use of particular relevance to school personnel at a meeting of the NYU Child Study Center Education Advisory Committee.
Ms. Friedman set the stage by stressing the danger, on the part of both parents and teachers, of viewing adolescents as mature, responsible adults. It is her belief that children are "extra-socialized" in today's society. Children, due to their desire to emulate current role models and to increased interaction with adults, often look and act more mature than they actually are. Thus adults may make the mistake of thinking of them as capable of making decisions - such as whether or not to use drugs - which are in fact beyond their capability and experience. Parents need to realize the true age of their children, and that they are not yet ready to make informed choices.
In some cases parents, in an ambivalent communication, may admonish their children, saying "don't use drugs," but often include a dangerous caveat: ".but if you do use drugs, be careful." Ms. Friedman believes this kind of statement is an open invitation for children to use drugs; adolescents hear "be careful" as "go ahead." Ms. Friedman advocates that not only schools but parents also develop their zero tolerance rule with drugs and alcohol. Some parents may not enforce a strict policy due to their belief that since they smoked marijuana themselves with no ill effects, the same situation will occur with their children. Ms. Friedman believes this viewpoint to be self-centered and potentially harmful.
Adults need to be aware of the differences between the drugs of thirty years ago and those of today. Drugs have become stronger and therefore more addictive over the years. For instance, the potency of marijuana has increased 40% over the last thirty years. Due to new technologies in the growth and harvesting of marijuana, growers can now produce a stronger, more potent strain, thereby increasing the drug's addictive properties. The marijuana smoked today is considerably more addictive and more dangerous than the marijuana smoked in the l960s, adding weight to the argument for zero tolerance policies.
Ms. Friedman emphasized that teachers share the responsibility with parents of preventing children from using drugs. Just as parents are not always aware of the maturity level of the children, neither are the teachers. She commented that teachers sometimes talk too intimately with their students. For example, in an attempt to befriend the student or because they perceive the child as being older than he/she actually is, teachers may discuss how drunk or stoned they themselves have gotten. Regardless of the reason, it is vitally important for all role models to monitor what they say and to whom they say it, so as not to compromise their authority.
According to Ms. Friedman, approximately 10% of people have the potential to become addicted to substances. Although this may not seem a large number, the fact that two students in a class of twenty might become addicted makes the statistic more meaningful.
Ms. Friedman noted that both environmental and biological factors determine whether children will use drugs and/or become addicted. Certain children who enjoy the taste of alcohol (e.g., a seven-year-old who tastes his father's glass of beer and loves it) may be biologically pre-disposed to drinking, and certain children grow up in environments where drinking is part of the daily routine, where alcohol seemingly is a natural part of life. Both biological and environmental factors may make it more difficult for the child to abstain from drug and alcohol use.
Regardless of the origin of the problem, children who continue to use drugs and alcohol due so for a reason. They may feel good, or they may feel better, when using drugs. For example, adolescents diagnosed with ADHD who use marijuana, tend to really enjoy the sensation of being stoned. For them, the world slows down enough for them to be able to cope better. An adolescent who is not suffering from depression or any other condition may use drugs just because they improve mood or decrease social inhibitions.
Children become addicted to drugs faster than adults do, noted Friedman. She gave an example of a football player who went out drinking every weekend, with the result that he became addicted to alcohol by the end of the season. This highlights the vital importance of preventing adolescent drug use, as abuse quickly becomes dependence.
The ability to properly assess the level of an individual's drug use is important for providing appropriate treatment. Signs of drug use differ between adolescents and adults, and being aware of these differences can aid in the proper assessment and treatment of drug users. Ms. Friedman dispelled the myth that hiding drug use is a sure sign of addiction. She noted that adolescents hide many things, so hiding alcohol or drug use is not unusual. In fact it makes sense that adolescents who are participating in an illegal activity on any level would want to hide their behavior. This does not mean that adolescents who hide their activities are not abusing drugs; they just might not be as dependent as previously thought. However, adults who hide their alcohol or drug use may prove to be more dependent than adolescents. Because drinking is legal for adults, they do not need to hide alcohol use; therefore those who do may actually be aware of their problem.
Ms. Friedman made the following recommendations for effective school policies regarding substance abuse. Schools should:
- Establish a strong, comprehensive, prevention-based program in the elementary and middle school grades. The program should focus not only on drug use, but on "life skills" issues designed to help children develop good decision-making abilities, critical thinking, a healthy sense of self, school attachment and achievement, and positive family and social relationships.
- Have a well-articulated set of guidelines, applied uniformly, to address incidents of drug/alcohol use that affect the school environment. Do not ignore the power of law enforcement.
- Have a zero-tolerance policy in terms of all illegal drug use (including tobacco) and related activity (e.g., selling, being intoxicated in class, conversation that glorifies use.) Note that this does not necessarily mean expulsion, but it does mean mandatory (and verifiable) treatment/counseling/possible testing. Merely notifying parents with proper follow-up is insufficient.
- Have staff thoroughly educated in the causes, risk factors, signs and progressive nature of teen drug/alcohol use so that they are able not only to detect problems, but are also able to counsel and act as role models as well.
- Insist on an educated and committed parent body. Consideration should be given to a "contract" for parents and students to sign indicating that all parties are aware of the school's position and procedures regarding identification, intervention, referral and follow-up.
- Aggressively attend to mental/emotional health aspects of the student body through group work, peer leadership and mentoring programs, and parent-doctor-therapist communication.
About the Author
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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