From The Experts: Alcohol & Drug Prevention Strategies

BlogRx is a content series developed by the Prescription Drug Safety Network to discuss the prescription drug safety landscape. In recognition of National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, the first iteration of the series will focus on demystifying the common misconceptions surrounding drug and alcohol use and misuse among young people today. This blog post features interviews with Kevin Carroll (UnityPoint Health – Des Moines) and Amy Badini (Developmental Psychology, MA). The blog will discuss prevention strategies and tactics for students.

Dr. Kevin Carroll, Vice President for Behavioral Health at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines, is responsible for the health care organization’s inpatient, outpatient and community-based mental health, alcohol and substance use treatment services. He is a former practicing clinician (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) now serving in an administrative role.

Amy Badini has an educational background in Developmental Psychology with a focus on adolescent risk-taking.  She currently serves on theGreenwich Local Prevention Council in her town, whose mission is to mobilize youth, parents and community partners to prevent substance misuse, promote behavioral and mental health and strengthen healthy choices through positive youth, family, and community development.

Between Kevin and Amy’s careers, education, and experiences as parents, they each had many insights to share with us regarding effective prevention strategies for young people concerning drug and alcohol use.

Prevention Tactic: Early & Often

AMY BADINI:  We need to talk to our kids early and often about everything: risky behaviors like using drugs and alcohol, appropriate behaviors, managing stress…whatever they may be facing. Early and often. Parents tend to get books about parenting babies and toddlers, and they’re really voracious readers about that, but a few years later, they often stop reading. When the kids grow into angsty teenagers, it’s easy to throw up our hands and say, “Well, they’re teens.” Parents sometimes think that teens are just endlessly mysterious and that they will eventually get past that stage. But this is a really important time, developmentally, to be engaged with them and talking to them. Around 14-18 years old, kids are just coming into a lot of critical reasoning skills and have had some experience and it’s ripe territory to connect with them on emotional and social situations they may encounter. Just as a toddler needs you to keep them physically safe, such as holding their hand in public, a teenager needs you to help keep them emotionally safe.

“This is the idea behind prevention: intervening before someone develops a problem.”

KEVIN CARROLL:  We work with older adults and see the complexity of their physical or emotional health problems, including addiction sometimes, and we recognize that the outcomes could have been so much better if we had been able to intervene earlier in the person’s life.  Certainly addressing substance misuse and abuse in the adolescent and teen years–and probably even before that–can go a long way in reducing the number of kids that develop problems, from acute substance abuse to long-term dependency.  Let’s help them develop healthy habits and maintain their health, rather than trying to fix conditions after they exist and have potentially been manifesting and wreaking havoc over many years.  This is the idea behind prevention: intervening before someone develops a problem.

Prevention Tactic: Give Your Kids Excuses To Say “No”

AMY BADINI:  The biggest myth among parents is that all kids do this stuff (drugs or alcohol). This is simply not true. All kids are different. It’s so important not to give kids the impression that all kids do it. If they think all the other kids are doing drugs or alcohol, that puts pressure on them to try it, too, because they want to fit in and it gives them an out to try something if they were looking for one. So the “everybody does it” perspective is a misconception that can lead to really harmful outcomes. Parents underestimate the power of their influence over their teens’ behaviors. The number one method kids use to say no to something is by referencing their parents (e.g. “My parents will kill me if I do that.”) Help your kid have excuses. Give them tools to say no. If a parent condones their kid having a little alcohol at a party, for example, it leaves that kid unprotected in a way. I used to leave a drug kit out in the open in my house for years, so when my kids had friends over they saw it and my kids always had an excuse to say, “I can’t, my parents will test me for drugs.”

Prevention Tactic: Digital Education

KEVIN CARROLL:  I find digital education is a great way to tackle prevention education for a couple of reasons.  Youths are very friendly with technology and spend hours on their devices daily; they’re very comfortable with that format so I think there’s a greater chance for impact.  Also, there are often sensitive topics or questions that students are embarrassed to ask or to admit that they don’t know in front of a group of their peers.  With digital instruction, they can interact with the lessons privately and will likely feel more comfortable being engaged and getting the information they are seeking.  They may be able to gain insights in a way that perhaps a traditional format can’t provide.  I think effective education encourages reflection and can sometimes even springboard into students wanting to discuss these topics with their friends.

Prevention Tactic: Accessible Resources

AMY BADINI:  Don’t be afraid to reach out to the many local resources available in your community. It doesn’t matter what your neighbor may think about the problem, helping the child or the person suffering from addiction needs to take a priority and we should encourage that mentality everywhere. Sometimes the issue is parents and youths knowing what resources are available to them. In many states, including CT, dialing 2-1-1 connects you to a variety of social services resources, which many people don’t know about. How to get good information home to parents is important. I think there is a great opportunity for schools to provide educational materials to parents about substance abuse, stress, anxiety, etc. by combining it with other mailers (e.g. report cards) where they are already paying for postage and envelopes. When seeking help for yourself or a friend or loved one, it’s important to embrace resources and not be hindered by the idea of a stigma.

Prevention Tactic: Mentorship

KEVIN CARROLL:  Some kids may not feel comfortable speaking to their parents about these sensitive topics or, unfortunately, may have parents who themselves abuse drugs or alcohol.  In those cases, I think having a meaningful adult that’s clean and sober and acting within the boundaries of the law for advice and counsel is especially critical.  All students should have an aspirational figure in their life, whether it’s a neighbor or family friend or school counselor.  They can gain a lot by having someone they respect who can give them advice and who role models the kind of person and behaviors that they want to emulate.  This also comes into play in cases where students themselves hope to support prevention efforts, make a difference, and take a stand against substance misuse and abuse.  I think it can be hard for kids to sustain continued activity around this, but with mentorship and strong support from adults in their lives (e.g. teachers) or in the community (e.g. a police department), they may be more equipped to mobilize and have a voice.