Whether we like it or not, substance abuse and addiction are part of the global zeitgeist. People
of all ages, genders, ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and beliefs can and have
fallen prey to the addictive power of alcohol or drugs. In fact, current estimates are that over
50,000 people die from alcohol and drug addiction each year, and that’s just in the United
States; when you considered the deaths occurring across the globe, the number reaches into
Understandably, addressing the rapidly-increasing rate at which people are developing
addictions has become a major priority for legislators, law enforcement officials, healthcare
professionals, treatment providers, and citizens alike. Of course, we have a rather extensive
catalog of different treatments and therapies that can be used to treat addiction, and since
there’s no way to cure this deadly disease, our attention often turns to finding ways of
decreasing rates of addiction. In other words: prevention.
are some of the most at-risk demographic groups for substance abuse problems. Historically, a
popular prevention strategy for youths has been to encourage abstinence, oftentimes via the
“Just Say No” campaign; however, as well-intentioned and logical as the campaign’s message
seems, there’s an argument to be made that such an approach is actually not very helpful when
it comes to reducing the ever-rising rate of addiction.
The popular expression “Just Say No” is usually attributed to former First Lady Nancy Reagan
when she expressed the sentiment in a public statement in 1982. Since then, the expression
has become the mantra for a nationwide anti-drug campaign that saw large-scale
implementation in many public schools. Adolescents and teens receiving substance abuse
education were repeatedly instructed to “just say no” to alcohol and drugs since, much like with
sexually-transmitted diseases, the most reliable means of avoidance is through abstinence.
“Just Say No” hasn’t been the only abstinence-based campaign to emerge over the years. In
fact, abstinence became the central philosophy of most student-facing initiatives. Even
D.A.R.E., another popular national program, primarily stressed abstinence; however, we came
to realize that there were a number of problems with these abstinence-only programs. For one
thing, our reliance on abstinence-based initiatives was essentially to be in denial of what
statistics were showing us, which is that a growing number of adolescents and teens are
experimenting with alcohol and drug abuse. Obviously, abstinence is the central ingredient of
programs like “Just Say No”, but we eventually realized we need a new strategy for increasing
awareness about addiction since less and less youths are actually abstaining from alcohol and
drugs. If anything, these figures show us that abstinence-only programs are simply ineffective at
preventing youths from turning to substance abuse.
According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, approximately one
in four high school seniors have had at least one episode of binge-drinking alcohol in the past
two weeks. Moreover, that number increases to 40 percent when extended to the past month;
over the same period, roughly 28 percent of high school sophomores abused alcohol at least
once. Of course, we would expect alcohol to be the most-abused substance among underage
youths since it’s the most accessible, but statistics show that the use of substances like
marijuana and prescription painkillers have increased substantially among youths, too.
The main problem with “Just Say No” and similar programs is that youths feel these programs
merely preach to them while giving them very little quantifiable information. Since sources show
that high school-age youths are already beginning to experiment with substance abuse, it would
be better to educate them about the substances they’re abusing, their risks, short-term and
long-term effects, and general outcomings of habitual substance abuse. In other words, rather
than focusing on the best-case scenario (abstinence), addiction education should prepare
students for the worst-case scenario, which would be active addiction. If anything, learning more
about the experience of addiction — i.e., loss of physical and psychological health, emotional
instability, damage to important relationships, loss of career prospects and opportunities, etc. —
would more effectively deter substance abuse than preaching to students about the dangers of
More importantly, prevention through education provides better chances of students having
useful or potentially life-saving information if they were to become addicted in the future. In
summary, providing an education about alcohol and drugs, addiction, and recovery would be
useful whether students remain abstinent, experiment with substance abuse, or eventually
become addicted and require treatment.
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