Last week I received a phone call that a 26-year-old relative had passed away from a heroine overdose. I immediately turned to family and friends for answers, and we all seemed to agree that there is a root to this problem that is going unnoticed.
As children, we go through drug education programs to instill the premise that doing drugs will ruin your life. But, when I think back on my “D.A.R.E.” program, I remember very little about it. I wonder if many of the kids in my class did, either, as I’ve seen friends, acquaintances, and peers succumb to drug addiction.
My friend’s brother is a heroine addict, and I’ve watched how it has affected her life. Families begin to wonder if the addict will make it to tomorrow. And when they do, it becomes some sort of backwards miracle. In society, they are outcasted. Rather than seeing this inherent epidemic as a public crisis, we push addicts away.
The level of unmet need for prevention, treatment, and recovery programs in the United States is alarming. Children aren’t receiving drug prevention messages, and 90 percent of the youth suffering from a drug problem don’t receive the help they need. Federal funding for these programs is largely overlooked, despite the fact that, in 2014, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses, which was 1.5 times greater than those killed in car crashes.
Family members of addicts worry so much about their survival, that jail seems like an answer. But this just forms a vicious cycle. Addicts go down the rabbit hole of illegal undertakings that ultimately land them in jail. They are then released, and begin the process all over again, because they were never properly rehabbed.
Why, instead of wasting time and money on court hearings and racking up criminal records, aren’t we prioritizing access to better prevention and treatment instead?
Speaking with a family member after the death of the young and beautiful girl we worried would fall to the fate she ultimately did, we contemplated where things went wrong. The programs aren’t working. So what can be done?
Research shows that the public antidrug programs like D.A.R.E. or the “Just Say No” campaign inspired by Nancy Reagan, which depend on education and scare tactics, are mostly ineffective. When something fails to succeed time and time again, and lives are continuously put at risk because of it, when do we wake up and make a change?
A new antidrug program tested in Europe, Australia, and Canada might have the answer, or, at the very least, spark the reality that things aren’t working the way they are currently.
Called “Preventure,” the program was developed by Patricia Conrod, who is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. The program is tailored toward a child’s temperament, and how it may put them at risk for drug use. The program recognizes that different personality traits form different avenues to addiction.
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Early trials of Preventure reveal that personality testing can pinpoint 90 percent of the highest risk children by identifying risky traits prior to the rise of drug use and addiction.
Growing up, my drug education seemed to assume we would fear, and therefore, stay away from, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, opioids, or methamphetamine by talking to us, not with us, for an hour once in a while. But this program takes into consideration that most teenagers don’t become addicted to such things, and therefore focuses on the minority who do.
So what are the traits that put kids at the highest risk for addiction? Likely not what you’d expect.
“The traits that put kids at the highest risk for addiction aren’t all what you might expect. In my case, I seemed an unlikely candidate for addiction. I excelled academically, behaved well in class and participated in numerous extracurricular activities,” Maia Szalavitz wrote for The New York Times. “Inside, though, I was suffering from loneliness, anxiety and sensory overload. The same traits that made me “gifted” in academics left me clueless with people.
That’s why, when my health teacher said that peer pressure could push you to take drugs, what I heard instead was: ‘Drugs will make you cool.’ As someone who felt like an outcast, this made psychoactive substances catnip.”
I can relate to Szalavitz’s feelings about peer pressure making you cool. And I know, based on observation and experience, that many others can, too. I smoked a cigarette for the first time as a teenager not because I thought it would taste good, but because I thought it would look cool to those around me. I smoked marijuana for the first time not because I had a desire to try it, but because I had someone over my shoulder telling me not to be such a baby. In fact, most of the things I tried for the first time were not because I was alone in a room and had a desire to.
Preventure focuses on four risky traits: sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, anxiety sensitivity, and hopelessness. Of these four traits, three of them are linked to mental health issues, which is a huge risk factor for addiction. Impulsiveness is common in people with A.D.H.D. Hopelessness is typically a precursor to depression. Anxiety sensitivity is linked to panic disorder.
Sensation-seeking is not recognized as a precursor to other diagnoses, but raises addiction risk because such people are drawn to intense experiences.
The Preventure program begins with an intensive two to three day training for teachers regarding therapy techniques that are proven to battle psychological issues. Then, middle schoolers take a personality test to identify those with outlying personalities that could lead to disordered thinking, and ultimately, drug abuse.
Months later, two 90-minute workshops are set up to help students channel their personality toward success. While they’re offered to everyone, there are only a limited number of slots. Astonishingly, most students sign up for the workshops.
Only those with extreme scores, which has been revealed to pick up 90 percent of those at risk, get to attend, however. They are then assigned to the workshop that targets their most troublesome trait. But the reason for the selection isn’t revealed unless students ask.
“There’s no labeling,” notes Dr. Conrod. The point is to keep kids away from labeling “high risk” as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In the workshops, students are taught cognitive behavioral techniques to concentrate on emotional and behavioral issues, while encouraging them to use these tools.
Tested in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada, the Preventure program was able to reduce issues with binge drinking, frequent drug use and alcohol-related problems. And a 2013 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the program cut drinking in selected schools by 29 percent, even for those who didn’t go to the workshops. And for the students most at risk, who did attend, drinking was cut by 43 percent.
When we talk about addiction, we shouldn’t just be talking about those who have died, or preventing those addicted from dying. We should be talking about the root of the problem. We should be talking about programs that don’t work, and programs that may work. We should be talking about better funding, about better treatments. We shouldn’t be ignoring those who fell through the cracks to the failing programs, allowing them to go to jail time and time again, allowing them to relapse time and time again. Let’s stop talking about all the people we know who suffer, or who have died, from addiction, and let’s talk about stopping it from ever becoming a problem to begin with.
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