Over 22 million people suffer from a drug or alcohol addiction, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year in healthcare costs and legal fees. Numerous studies show that the best way to mitigate the drug and alcohol problems is prevention and early intervention. Several factors contribute to the development of the disorder, but two of the most significant are genetics and the fact addiction is a development disorder. This means that many of the triggering effects often occur in early childhood or adolescence. That is why most drug prevention measures are focused on children and adolescents, rather than adults.
By stopping the problem early, many substance abuse and addiction problems can be prevented. There are several components of drug prevention, but by far the most important is education. The government has developed several drug prevention programs, and many drug prevention organizations also have likewise created programs for children and adolescents in order to prevent the problems before they begin.
Drug Abuse Statistics
Those who start drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop problems with alcohol or drug abuse or addiction than people who wait to drink after age 21. According the latest data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 2.9 million people over the age of 12 tried an illicit drug for the first time in 2012. Over half of these (55.1 percent) were younger than 18. The average age of initiation was 18.7 years. For most people (65.6 percent), the initial drug was marijuana. Prescription medication was the second most common initial drug, with 26 percent. About 17 percent started with prescription medication.
There is also a significant number of young people drinking alcohol at an early age. In 2012, 4.6 million people tried alcohol for the first time, and 81.4 percent of that population were younger than 21. About 58.3 percent were younger than 18.
Some drug prevention and education is working. According to the survey, 65.7 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 believed there was great risk in smoking one or more cigarettes a day. About 64.9 percent saw the risk in drinking four to five alcoholic drinks every day. However, only 43.6 percent perceiving any risk in smoking marijuana one or twice a week, and even fewer (26.5) saw any harm in smoking marijuana once a month. The perceived risk for other drugs had much higher percentages: about 80 percent saw a risk for heroin, 78.9 percent for cocaine, and 70.6 for LSD. These numbers show that although the youth do have some knowledge, there is still the need for strong drug education and prevention programs.
The most essential component of any drug prevention program is education. Education must be factual and provide all the important information about taking the drugs, including the damaging and sometimes fatal side effects. Education should not focus on inciting fear in children; instead, it should provide an objective discussion that demonstrates the problems of taking drugs and alcohol far outweigh the feel-good effects. By having the right information, a person can make a more informed decision about whether to abuse drugs or alcohol.
It is very important that the information about drugs, especially the harmful side effects, should be discussed objectively. These effects should include not just the physical side effects, but also the legal problems, social problems, employment difficulties, and the other potentially devastating effects of taking drugs and alcohol. It should not seem like the program is trying to scare the children and teenagers into not taking the drugs, or end up making the drugs or alcohol or drugs seem "cool" or something with which to rebel. This can be a difficult balance, especially when educators have to overcome some of the societal assumptions about drugs, especially substances like marijuana and alcohol that have a less harmful reputation than other substances.
Teenagers are the most vulnerable, as they tend to be faced with peer pressure to abuse drugs. They need to have concrete reasons to decide against taking the drugs, as they will be faced with temptation from their peers, who will emphasize the feel-good effects and other benefits from taking the drug.
Drug education also needs to provide students with helpful alternatives to taking drugs. Social pressure can make it difficult for some people to "just say no." By providing people alternative solutions for overcoming and withstanding social pressure, they can learn to say no and abstain, even when faced with peer pressure. Some of these solutions might just be ways to stand up to peer pressure, but it goes further than merely learning to say no.
Drug education also needs to educate people about alternative solutions for stress relief and emotional coping mechanisms. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol for escaping strong emotions or relieving stress. By teaching the public, especially children, on how to manage these situations, including seeing a therapist, yoga, meditation, a healthy diet, exercise, and more, people will be less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate or for stress relief. The earlier people learn to manage stress and other problems through healthy behavior, the less risk they have of turning to drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important places for drug and alcohol education is in schools. By starting drug education early and continually reminding students of the dangers of drugs and alcohol, many students will recognize that they should stay away from drugs and alcohol. However, these programs have to actually speak to and engage with the students, otherwise there will continue to be problems. Adolescents are notorious for rebelling against parents and teachers. Programs need to surpass this precarious relationship and provide students with the knowledge they need to make their own informed decision to stay away from drugs. The most successful programs go beyond book learning and actually engage with the students.
There are other environments where it is appropriate to teach youth about the problems of using drugs and alcohol. Sports teams, religious organizations, art or music groups, community organizations, clubs, and other organizations can also provide forums to discuss drug education for youth and adolescents. They also provide a support system outside of school that can keep kids away from many of the risk factors that increase to possibility of using drugs and alcohol. These programs also can keep watch on children, and keep them accountable, in a place where they already enjoy being, and with adults and peers they trust. These programs have been shown to work best when led by trusted adults.
Two examples of proven programs that utilize these types of relationships are the ATLAS and ATHENA programs for student athletes. These programs exploit the relationship of the coach to discuss healthy behavior patterns to prevent steroid abuse and other substance abuse problems in teenagers. It does not just focus solely on drugs and alcohol abuse; it also talks about other potentially risky behavior patterns, such as eating disorders and mental health problems. It is an ongoing program throughout the year led by the coach that opens up a safe space for these students to discuss their problems, and learn healthy ways to deal with their issues.
The media has a powerful impact on children and adolescents. It provides a forum that has the potential to educate and demonstrate the real dangers of taking drugs and alcohol. However, the media too often glamorizes using drugs and drinking alcohol, especially among adolescent populations. It creates the idea that drinking, doing drugs, and partying is normal teenage behavior, rather than showing the real risks involved. By utilizing this media to educate rather than glamorize, some drug abuse problems could be prevented.
What Parents can Do
Parents also play an important role in preventing their children from developing substance abuse problems. A strong home life with healthy relationships will mitigate many risk factors. Parents can also create an atmosphere that facilitates an open discussion that continues the drug education programs from school or other places. Parents should also monitor their children's activities, as well as have an idea of their friends, without becoming too overbearing. This could include monitoring social media; however, this should be done with the children's knowledge to avoid it causing problems. There should also be consistent and clear rules of conduct, especially regarding drugs and alcohol, and consistent punishments if these rules are broken. Most importantly, parents should take an active role in their children's life and be involved, beyond just being rule makers.
Being Involved in Social Activities
One of the best ways to prevent drug and alcohol use in teenagers is involvement in extra-curricular activities. Studies have shown that students who are involved in a variety of programs are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. These activities could be any kind of social organization or club outside of regular school, including team or individual sports, music, arts, community service, religious organizations, local clubs, dance, academic clubs, and more.
One study showed that the best preventative activity is coach-led sports. However, any activity beyond school can keep kids away from many risk factors for abusing drugs and alcohol. These programs keep kids accountable, as well as fill up their time so they are too busy to engage in problems. They also have extra incentive to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Engaging in extracurricular activities is especially important for the most at risk population: inner-city and underprivileged youth. Implementing more afterschool programs in these areas can help to lower the numbers of children and adolescents turning to drugs and alcohol. When the kids are more involved, they will be less likely to be approached by drug dealers, join gangs, or otherwise engaging in behavior that increases their risk of developing a drug or alcohol habit.
Being involved does not just help mitigate drug and alcohol problems in children and adolescents; it can also help adults as well. Many adults turn to drugs and alcohol when they feel lonely, depressed, isolated, or have other negative feelings. Studies have shown that engaging in the community and having an active social life can decrease negative feelings. Being involved in the community also provides a larger support network to the person for any problems.
Know the Risk Factors
There are certain factors that increase a person's risk of developing a problem with drugs and alcohol. By knowing the risk factors, and recognizing them in oneself, a person can act early to prevent a problem.
People with a family history of drugs and alcohol abuse or addiction are at a much higher risk of developing a problem. Although the development of an addiction is complicated and typically involves several factors, genetics does play a significant role. That is why people with a family history should take more care to properly educate themselves and learn how to resist peer pressure to use. They should also be very careful about the amount of alcohol they drink, and avoid using drugs, including abusing prescription medication.
Environmental factors that increase the risk of a person developing a substance abuse or addiction problem can begin early in life. Some studies have shown that life events that occur in infants and toddlers can at times influence the development of a problem later in life. Some of these problems include: child abuse, lack of supervision, exposure to drugs or alcohol, media influence and peer pressure. There are also internal factors that increase a person's risk, including self-esteem problems and a lack of social skills. Other factors that increase the chance of a person abusing drugs or alcohol include feelings of social approval for using, not recognizing the risk, and the availability of drugs. Many of these environmental risk factors remain in adulthood as well.
One of the biggest risk factors for using is the age of first use. The earlier a person first uses drug or alcohol, the higher risk he or she has of developing future problems.
The Special Case of Prescription Medication
One of the fastest growing drugs of abuse is prescription medication, especially opioid pain medication. This growing abuse has also led to an increase in heroin addiction, because many people who develop an addiction to opioid pain medication turn to heroin because it provides a similar effect but is often cheaper and easier to obtain. Therefore, it is important to implement certain preventative measures for prescription medication.
The number one way to mitigate this risk is for people to only take medication as prescribed by their doctor, and follow all guidelines. If a person feels he or she needs a stronger prescription, they should discuss it with a doctor. People should never take medication that was prescribed for another person.
Additionally, when a person no longer needs the medication but still has some of the drugs, they should dispose of them properly, especially for the most abused substances. This reduces the chance that someone else in the house will abuse the medication. Many places have implemented programs for returning unused prescriptions to prevent the abuse of prescription medication.
In addition to personal management of prescriptions, it is important for doctors and pharmacists to regulate the prescriptions. Although some federal and state guidelines exist, people have found easy ways to beat the system. There is minimal communication between doctors, which can make it easy for someone to shop around and get more than one prescription for medication. Additionally, many doctors are not able to spend a lot of time with each patient. They could miss some of the indications that a person is there to abuse medication, rather than actually needing it. By streamlining a way to easily discover the risk factors for abuse in a patient, as well as create better communication between doctors, the number of prescriptions given to those abusing drugs will be reduced.
Providing the Right Support Networks
Many people turn to drugs and alcohol due to emotional or psychological problems. They do not know how to manage their feelings, so they abuse drugs or alcohol to escape reality and feel better. Over time, they develop a dependency on the substance. With certain stigmas attached to seeking help for mental health disorders and other emotional problems, people more often turn to an easy cure: drugs and alcohol. However, this only masks the problem, rather than helping it. In fact, it typically makes it even worse. A person ends up with an addiction problem on top of their other problems.
By providing the right support networks, many of these problems can be mitigated. In schools, there should be counselors and support groups for teenagers going through problems. They should be easily accessible without making the teenagers feel even worse about seeking treatment. If teenagers learn early to seek help for emotional problems, they will continue to do so throughout life, rather than relying upon drugs and alcohol.
Another way to help mitigate this problem is to continue the work to de-stigmatize mental illness. Many people feel ashamed of mental health problems, and do not want to seek help because they feel people will think poorly of them. Even though 43.7 million adults in American suffer from some type of mental health condition, only 34.1 million adults sought some form of help. Although cost played the most significant role in people not seeking care (45.7 percent), many people (about 10 percent) still do not seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness. If people feel more comfortable seeking help for their problems, they will be less likely to turn to alcohol and drugs and will find healthier methods to overcome their issues.
Decriminalizing and Legalizing, Does this Help?
There has been a lot of talk lately about decriminalizing drugs as part of the solution to the ongoing drug problem. Decriminalizing is not the same as legalizing. Decriminalizing merely takes away the severe punishments for taking drugs; it does not make it legal to sell or consume them. People can still be punished; they will just have more lenient sentences, such as fines. Many people who abuse drugs end up in jail or prisons, sometimes for many years, rather than receiving the help they need to overcome their problems. If drugs were decriminalized, then people could get the help they need, especially as they will not be afraid of facing criminal charges.
Recently, there have been many movements to legalize marijuana. Several states have already legalized medical use of the substance, and some states have legalized recreational use. Many people fear that legalizing drugs will make it seem "okay," and less harmful, increasing the amount of abuse. Marijuana already has a harmless reputation, and it is the most commonly abused illicit drug. The most abused substances are already legal: alcohol and tobacco. Although legality can influence whether people abuse a substance, as well as its reputation, education matters much more than legality.
By educating the public on the dangers of all substances, legal or illegal, than substance abuse will prevented. Although regulation and oversight is important in the war on drugs, legality makes the most difference to people who are afraid of breaking the law. Those who are susceptible to a problem still find a legal way to get high, whether from alcohol, prescription drugs, or other substances.
The best preventative measures will combine national, state, local and individual preventative measures. Implementing national and state guidelines and regulations for drug education and prevention will help to create a streamlined structure that people can follow. In schools and local organizations, trusted adults can implement respected and proven programs for preventative measures.
Additionally, national and state guidelines can help to regulate the availability of drugs, including legal highs such as alcohol and prescription medication. They can also help to implement treatment programs and early intervention to help those who have already developed a problem.
Individuals need to be educated to know not just the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol, but also healthier alternatives, how to withstand peer pressure, how to mitigate emotional and psychological problems, and the importance of seeking help early. By creating a holistic approach to preventing drugs and alcohol, there can continue to be a decrease in the number of addicts.
Prevention and early intervention are the best ways to help lower the numbers of people with substance abuse and addiction problems. Prevention also lowers the costs due to the consequences of using, including healthcare costs and legal fees.