We all remember it, the all-encompassing dread and deep-seated boredom of a school assembly with a guest speaker. Pretending to pay attention to some 38-year-old balding man in a graphic t-shirt talking about the danger of drugs. Maybe he tried really, really hard to be hip and down with the kids. Maybe he had a rap. Maybe he incorporated some audience participation. God, it’s good to be out of high school.
Jokes aside, it’s obviously important to give the young people of our country an education on drugs. Of course we want these kids to make smart decisions, to stay away from hard drugs and listen to that man who came into their school once when they were 12 and told them to never submit to peer pressure.
In an ideal world, those talks would work. We’d see the fear mongering powerpoint slides with pictures of rotting brains and we’d think of those when someone offered us a joint at a party 5 years later.
But let’s be real: the drug talk guy has never popped into any of our minds at parties. Educational raps just don’t work. But more importantly, trying to scare kids away from doing drugs might give them a few nightmares (or, if we’re being really honest, a few memes), but it doesn’t stop them from trying drugs. Those pictures of black teeth, damaged brains and oozing mouth sores do succeed at grossing kids out, but that’s about all they succeed at.
Peter Adams, associate director of Auckland University’s Centre for Addiction research, acknowledged the ineffectiveness of scare tactics in drug education, saying that “the way things have been taught in schools often is a way of scaring people out of use. That has been researched to death and really shown as a non-effective way of educating people about drug use.” Adams believes that if we want to make a difference, schools need to move away from these methods, and more towards a drug education that is informative, peer-driven and focused on empowered decision making.
In 2018, Massey High School found itself in the midst of a controversy surrounding its handling of drug education, when material was made available to year 13 Health students that discussed how to safely use meth. The health class brochure that was given to students included tips such as: “When taking meth, eat something every 4 or 5 hours” and “If using a glass pipe, clean the inside regularly to remove burnt residue which could be inhaled.” Predictable outrage ensued, and many parents were upset, but the school’s principal stood by the decision, which was also supported by the Drug Foundation.
I understand why educational methods like the one employed at Massey High School are controversial. It makes sense that parents are concerned. Of course they don’t want their children doing drugs, and they’re worried that a drug education programme that discusses how to do drugs safely rather than focusing purely on prevention could be interpreted by their children as a free pass to do whatever they want.
But whatever we say or do, kids are going to try drugs.
So, we should be providing an education that’s as comprehensive as possible. Drug education in school needs to focus on not only the negative impacts of drugs but also some of the other elements of such a complex issue, such as drug safety, causes of addiction and mental health.
Drug education should be as much of a priority in schools as sex education, it should be taught in Health classes throughout the five years of high school (particularly the last few, when students are most likely to be encountering drugs in their social life), not just in one assembly when we’re 13.
The way we talk about drugs with teenagers needs to be more honest, and less judgmental. Don’t tell kids that their lives will be ruined by doing drugs, and don’t expel them and fulfil that prophecy as soon as they do drugs. Equip kids with information that will keep them safe and aware of all the risks.
Because clearly, the scare tactics aren’t working.
Villainesse and NZME, in association with the NZ Drug Foundation, have just released webseries The REAL Drug Talk, which provides comprehensive, evidence-based education about drugs and alcohol. Check out the series at www.therealdrugtalk.com.Support Villainesse