My teen years were spent in the 1960s; you know, hippies, long hair, rock-n-roll, changing norms, social unrest and drugs. I had the good fortune to be raised with a strong moral compass that helped me navigate the tumultuous times and come out unscathed.
However, this wasn’t true for many of my friends and acquaintances. Too many had their lives destroyed by mind- and body-altering substances. Their amazing potential and futures were altered forever. Some died, while others died mentally but remained physically alive.
Oh sure, like many in my generation, I did some stupid things. But in reality, the “hippie years” were just a very small parenthesis along my time line. In fact, those years profoundly set into motion what I was to become and how I have spent the past five decades. I count myself fortunate, but also haunted by the devastation and destruction substance abuse causes.
I don’t know of anyone who has not experienced the destructiveness of substance abuse in some way, either personally or in relation to a family member, relative or friend. Over the years, I have ruminated intensely about why some people are so overtaken by the lure of intoxication that they lose self-control and are sucked into an abyss of destruction. Some people have the ability to crawl out of this deadly hole and take back control, while others may flirt around the fringes but are not overtaken.
For me, I am convinced my strength and good fortune came from the strong core values I was inculcated with, God’s prevenient grace, positive relationships, and a very tenacious, persevering spirit. Everyone has a unique story – our challenge is to find a way to help people have a good ending to theirs; better yet, to help them build a wall that prevents them from getting close to, let alone going over, the edge. Recovery programs are important, but it is far better not to need recovery in the first place.
The hard fact is this: We live in a culture which excessively promotes the use of drugs and alcohol. One needs only to watch TV for a couple of hours to be bombarded with ads from the pharmaceutical companies extolling the benefits of particular drugs to remedy any number of physical maladies. How much better off we would be if that money was spent promoting healthy living and prevention so people wouldn’t need the damn drug in the first place? Alongside this reality is the constant message that using alcohol is hip and cool, basically implying that those who don’t participate in these behaviors are social outcasts or nerds. These messages are not the best to be relaying to our kids.
I am not naive enough to think that this cultural promotion of drugs and alcohol is going to change, at least not quickly. This type of change is going to take a huge cultural paradigm shift. But think of the alternative if we don’t make this effort.
To begin, we should start with controlling the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, but they’ve bribed Congress into submission, so that won’t be easy or even possible for now. So, that means we need a grassroots, state-by-state, city-by-city, community-by-community, family-by-family effort.
Given the magnitude and extent of substance abuse in the United States, there has been substantial money spent on research which overwhelmingly confirms that prevention is possible and effective. Let’s look at some of the key, “evidence-based” strategies. From the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- Prevention programs must enhance protective factors, and reverse or reduce risk factors
- Prevention programs must address all forms of drug abuse: illegal and prescribed as well as alcohol, and be specific to each particular community’s indigenous experience and high-risk populations
- Family-based prevention is effective and must focus on building strong relationships, building parenting skills, and developing and enforcing norms and expectations around substance use and abuse
- Substance abuse prevention must begin at the preschool level and carry forward into elementary school, middle-school and high-school. Research shows that substance abuse begins as early as the middle school years, so preschool and elementary education, coupled with family-based education, is paramount
- Programs that ensure successful transition from grade to grade, school to school, as well as those minimizing bullying also make a significant difference
- Communities which promote multiple prevention approaches, (i.e., family-based, school-based, faith-based and media-based) are far more successful in reducing substance abuse
- Prevention programs which account for unique community and cultural needs are far more effective
- Prevention programs must include teacher training on “good classroom management” techniques
- Prevention programs are most effective when they employ interactive techniques, such as peer discussion groups and parent role-playing, which allow for active involvement in learning about drug abuse and reinforcing skills
- Substance abuse prevention is very cost-effective. For every dollar spent on prevention efforts as described above, $10 is saved in substance abuse treatment – that’s not a bad return on the investment!
How long will it take before we wake up and realize we are losing millions of lives each year to substance abuse while wasting millions, maybe billions, of dollars on wrong strategies? The “War on Drugs” has been an abject failure. How much stronger and healthier would we be as a nation and culture if those dollars had instead been spent on strengthening families and communities through effective prevention activities?
This is, admittedly, an oversimplification of a very complicated issue. I know that part of the answer is far broader than even the interventions discussed above. We need to address poverty, inequality, wage disparity, employment opportunity, lack of social mobility, discrimination and the likes, as these factors all work together to break the human spirit, producing depression and hopelessness which so often leads to self-medication to anesthetize one’s despair.
I certainly want to celebrate those who have overcome substance abuse through recovery, and applaud those who work tirelessly in the recovery industry. But now is the time to push this effort much further upstream with the knowledge and confidence that reducing the need for recovery is possible through effective prevention.