Why ‘Just Say No’ Doesn’t Work

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Why ‘Just Say No’ Doesn’t Work


Just Say No

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

the millions.

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.

Youths are often a focus of our prevention efforts
because adolescents, teens, and young adults

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 Abstinence-Only Approach

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.

Prevention Over Preaching

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

peer pressure.

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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