Reducing the impact of drug abuse upon the adult population, is only part of the solution to this destructive problem.
Reducing the number of children and young people who feel the desire or the need to use drugs and alcohol in the first place, is another thing altogether.
In my working life, I came into contact with far too many children and adolescents who were substance abusers. They came from incredibly diverse backgrounds, but all had two things in common – not one of them came from a family situation which was anything like “normal” (if such a thing exists) and not one of them was happy with significant aspects of her or his life.
My experience taught me that young people tend to choose to use drugs and alcohol for one, two or all, of three reasons:
- Experimentation due to curiosity. Young people are constantly warned of the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Some want to know what all the fuss is about. Of these, some will find out and conclude that the risks outweigh the rewards and choose to cease experimenting, while others will make the opposite choice.
- Risk taking or thrill seeking. Some young people take risks because it brings excitement into an otherwise boring existence. If we can assist young people to find suitable alternative avenues for spicing up their lives, we may be able to reduce the number who choose to use drugs and alcohol for that purpose.
- Escape from reality. The lives of some young people are so filled with angst, conflict and despair, that they seek ways of escape. For some, in extreme cases, suicide is the most practical option, while for others the oblivion offered by excessive consumption of alcohol or the altered mental and emotional states provided by some drugs, present a viable alternative to personal obliteration.
There is little which can be done to dissuade curious people from experimenting. Curiosity is a natural trait which resides within all individuals. In some, natural cognitive filters reduce the urge to satisfy curiosity, raising the “risk versus reward” consideration, whilst in others impulsive behaviour trends dominate and the need to experiment overcomes any perceptions of risk.
I can claim only very limited success in promoting the growth of the “thought before deed” concept in young people. The process takes a very long time to achieve even the slightest progress, competing as it does with entrenched reactionary and survival behaviours. The fact that people are still taking up cigarette smoking, despite the universal, decades-long knowledge of its associated, proven health risks, is clear evidence of the fact that this type of behaviour is firmly entrenched.
Our current schooling system cannot provide the time and human resources to deal with this issue, primarily due to the fact that politicians and pedagogical “experts” consider it less important than defining a mythical “basic skills level” through the application of NAPLAN and similar, entirely useless, measuring tools.
Therefore, the task of teaching young people how to assess and risk-manage their behaviour falls to parents, some of whom are incapable of managing even their own behaviours.
I consider risk-taking to be a product of curiosity, but also reflective of an innate desire, independent of curiosity. There is merit in exposing people to risk in controlled environments. Just as it is impossible to learn how to swim without entering the water, it is impossible to learn risk-management without experiencing risk.
The reward for successful risk-management lies in experiencing an “adrenalin rush”, as a means to achieve a “natural high”, but in teaching risk-management we must ensure a high degree of safety for the participants, if we are to avoid negative outcomes.
In my experience, young people enjoy being appropriately challenged, physically and mentally, regardless of their particular physical and mental capabilities.
Whilst working with adolescents who had been removed from their schools and placed in a “purpose-built” learning environment, due to their inability to manage their behaviour appropriately, I employed a strategy which relied heavily upon risk-taking by my students.
These were young people whose learned behaviours already included alcohol and drug abuse, and the use of violence as a form of self-expression.
Although “tough enough” to survive various forms of child-abuse, these students were essentially fragile when placed in unfamiliar circumstances. Challenges outside their range of experiences caused the same reactions in them as in “normal” kids – generally anxiety and withdrawal. They needed to be taught how to meet challenges using appropriate behaviours, and the challenges needed to be “scaled” in terms of difficulty in order to encourage participation, not rejection.
Perhaps the simplest and most effective example I can relate, involved the use of a physical activity – indoor climbing. An identical strategy, in principle, was employed in the area of academic learning.
By attempting academic learning activities which were designed to suit their natural ability and past experience levels, students could earn reward points. The degree of success in these tasks was largely irrelevant. It was the attempt which was important. The motto introduced to each student was simple:
“The only failure is the failure to try.”
Accumulated points would earn a (non-academic) reward activity when a target was achieved. One of these activities was an excursion to a local indoor climbing venue, one which provided a number of climbing challenges which ranged from moderate to extreme.
In a safe and supportive environment students were encouraged to take risks at an appropriate level. The reward for effort became intrinsic, rather than material, and attitudes to tackling challenging tasks were gradually changed.
We also accessed a “low-ropes” course at a departmental environmental study centre, and engaged in overnight camping excursions, and reward activities such as these brought their own rewards – increased self-confidence and a more positive attitude.
Success bred success and there was an observable carry-over into academic learning.
I have not researched data to confirm my view, but, from my observations, I conclude that young people who are engaged in activities which foster increased self-esteem and a more positive self-image, tend to be less inclined towards substance abuse. Participation in controlled, successful, risk-taking behaviour is one way in which positive self-knowledge may be attained.
Opportunities to use these behaviours may be found in sports, individual and team, recreational to extreme, (when undertaken solely for enjoyment), and in more intellectual pursuits, ranging from simple word-games, puzzles and traditional card games, to high-level, competition chess.
The type of activity is less significant than the appropriateness of the level of personal risk involved in participation.
In my experience it is the opportunity to escape from reality that drives more people to engage in substance abuse than either experimentation or thrill-seeking.
In my youth there were many occasions on which I escaped from reality. Without the wherewithal to secure alcohol or drugs, I was forced to use fantasy. Books, and later on television, provided my only avenues to find places in which my mind could rest and avoid facing the damaging fears that were part of my everyday existence.
As a child, I became acutely aware of the fact that it was my mind which enabled my survival in a constantly threatening world. When, as an adolescent, I had greater access to mind-altering substances, I rejected their use, purely because of the fear which I had, that using these substances would diminish my mental capacity and therefore my ability to manage my life.
Since the cultural evolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, access to alcohol and illegal drugs has mushroomed, along with the criminal activities which support it. Young people who have the need to escape from their daily lives, and with the will to find avenues for mind-altering, have unlimited opportunities to do so.
Attempting to eliminate the sources from which people can acquire their “medication” has proven futile throughout the 20th century. There is no reason to suspect that the situation will improve during the 21st.
The most effective way to reduce the use of harmful “obliterants”, as a means to escape an unbearable reality, is to reduce the demand for them.
Sadly, achieving that goal is well-nigh impossible, but that does not excuse a failure to try.
In order to do so, we would need to change entrenched patterns of human behaviour. I know of only one acceptable means to bring about such change, and the conservatives in our society would decry it as inhumane, immoral and impractical.
Young people’s lives are fucked-up, almost exclusively, by adults. Most of the time, these adults are those who have been responsible for the births of these young people, and who have limited their responsibility solely to the requisite copulation.
In more than four decades of contact with dysfunctional children and adolescents, and their progenitors (I can’t use the term “parents” because the behaviours of these individuals don’t fit within the scope of my definition of the word “parent”), I have never encountered one whose self-destructive behaviours were not a product of shit management by adults.
Issues ranging from the negative behaviours of a single-parent mother with poor, or non-existent, anger-management strategies, to finding the hanging corpse of a father, who has chosen the ultimate escape from his life’s difficulties, or watching whilst Dad films Mum, naked and engaged in activities with three other men, for later publication via the Internet, cause irreparable damage to the minds of the young.
Regrettably, the problems of minds already damaged, can then be exacerbated by other adults, whose responsibility is supposed to be the support of the aforesaid minds. Inappropriate management practices employed by teachers, doctors and welfare workers, who are either poorly trained or emotionally unsuited to caring for damaged kids, has the potential to limit, and even reverse, any progress towards positive self-management which young people may make.
Identifying the source of emotional damage to young people is terribly easy. It’s finding ways to reduce the potential for this damage to occur, which is the hard bit. I have some suggestions.
Firstly, I refer readers to the paragraphs on education, which you have already encountered at the beginning of this rant.
Secondly, I encourage you to consider the removal of endangered children and adolescents to a place, and perceived and actual state, of safety. Here’s where I stand a good chance of getting into deep shit.
Critics of my suggestion may site the inviolability of the parent-child connection as a reason to allow incompetent, and even dangerous, adults to have unfettered charge of their children. These would be people who see the act of creating a child as the act of parenting, whilst I make a clear distinction between the two. However, that’s a rant for another time.
Removal of a young person from those responsible for her/his birth, will almost certainly create a trauma for that child, and before taking such a step, those whose responsibility it is to protect the vulnerable, must be convinced that the trauma caused is justified, in that it reduces the chances of more severe future trauma occurring. Speculation upon the nature of the destructive experiences which might be endured by young people is further subject matter for the above-mentioned, later, rant.
Removal can only be an acceptable option when the young person can be guaranteed placement in an advantageous situation. The horror stories of past generations “in care” must never be allowed to be repeated. Ways of providing suitable alternative situations may be suggested, again, in that later rant, but one thing is paramount – the quality and quantity of constructive adult supervision.
In my final suggestion, I ask you to accept that remediation of the damage done to vulnerable children and adolescents, can only be provided by people who are appropriately trained and emotionally suitable to teaching alternate behaviours to young people who have the potential to self-destruct.
Substance abuse is a behaviour that, whilst potentially destructive, is usually engaged in as an alternative to the use of other behaviours, which might be chosen in order to manage problems, rather than trying to avoid them.
A behaviour, once learned, is not forgotten and, in some cases, becomes the default behaviour automatically selected when emotional stresses are experienced.
In my experience, it has proven to be impossible to “delete” a behaviour, destructive or otherwise, from any person’s repertoire. The best we can hope to achieve is to encourage any person who chooses to use destructive behaviours to learn, and then choose to use, suitable alternative behaviours.
The process of enabling someone, young or old, to build a bank of such behaviours can be incredibly time-consuming, and therefore expensive, and requires the co-operative efforts of talented, highly trained teachers, medical professionals and social welfare workers.
Even then, no positive outcomes can be guaranteed.
The manifold negative outcomes of substance abuse have been with us since Noah was nailing planks upon the Ark. Punishment of abusers has failed, as have attempts at rehabilitation which address only the act of abuse, without acknowledging, and managing the root causes.
For each individual who engages in substance abuse, the path towards rejection of the habit must begin by identifying the “why” of the action, before moving forward with a plan which identifies the original stimulus for the behaviour and brings the abuser to an understanding of his/her situation. Until this is done as a matter of course, the “treatment” of substance abuse is destined to stagger from failure to failure.