Alcohol and Drugs with Teens Today – Beyond “Just Say No”
"I've heard 'just say No' (to drugs) all of my life, now marijuana is being legalized, I'm confused." Do you agree, disagree or don't know? Please move to one of the three areas of the room where those three options are indicated.
That's an example of a prompt given to high school students who participate in a new Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs (ATOD) peer-to-peer prevention training offered by Community Matters. The activity, called “The Values Walk", is designed to have students think critically about their experiences when confronted with issues of ATOD. The training was introduced after school district officials in San Jose, California approached Community Matters to see if the same strategies used in the evidence-based Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) training could be applied to decisions young people make surrounding substance abuse.
As one of the co-developers of the training I was curious to see how this activity would be received. On one hand I was confident that students would respond positively because the material emphasized talking with them rather than talking at them. On the other, I find that I always have a nervous curiosity to see how students will react to new concepts and activities about a subject matter that’s both delicate and polarizing. It would be too easy to describe the ATOD training as a list of do's and don'ts for students to follow. Rather, the training stresses the importance of making life-affirming decisions while keeping friendships with those who do decide to use or experiment.
At one point in the training, students begin to share how ATOD has touched their lives and those they care about. One by one, students recall memories of loved ones struggling with addiction or how ATOD has in one way or another harmed relationships. Thankfully, the training incorporates adult support from the participating school, so when a student has shared deeply and emotions are strong, there is someone present to help out. And this is just the first day of the training!
Unlike the issue of bullying and disrespect, where behaviors can clearly be described as not okay, the ATOD training gets into more of a grey area where students, or even adults, don't often have a clear understanding of the impacts of ATOD. Unfortunately, as adults we send very confusing messages to our youth.
For example, look at the advertising of alcoholic beverages. In these ads, sports, music and pop cultures are used to bombard our youth with images of beautiful people, beach or mountain scenes and catchy slogans with the promise of a lot of upside. I would challenge the marketers of such commercials to witness one of the activities in the ATOD training where students share their experiences of innocence lost, families fractured and lives mangled because of what seemed a harmless act with little to no consequences, yet a lot of promised upside.
By the second day of the training, students begin to learn skills that will come in handy when they are confronted or unknowingly thrust into a situation where ATOD is present and they must make a choice in that moment. Similar to the skills taught in SSA, the training gives them a chance to practice language and actions that will enable them to make safer and healthier decisions for themselves or their friends. Many of the situations that are "played out" in the training come from their own experiences of seeing ATOD used and abused at their school, so there’s a familiarity and connection to what is being discussed. At the end of the training, a shift in their attitudes towards ATOD begins to take place. Where students came in with an unfamiliarity of what to do or say when their best friend offers them a hit, there is now an observable boldness and confidence in their approach.
The issues of ATOD are complex and the training doesn't seek to answer all the questions of ATOD's legality and evolving social impact. What it does do is help students notice, think, act and find their voice to inform their lives, and the lives of others, on the consequences and choices that ATOD use may have. That's real upside.
Alejandro Vilchez is a Community Matters Trainer and a seasoned and recognized leader in the field of violence/gang prevention for over 20 years.
For more information on our ATOD Peer to Peer Prevention program, click here.