Alberta drug educators say today’s approaches are more effective, but improvements still need to be made

For decades, experts and politicians have tried to educate children about drug and alcohol use by concentrating on the message, “Just say no.”

Studies, however, show campaigns such as Project D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) had little to no impact. Experts say, once kids discovered that they could use drugs without dying or suffering permanent damage, they realized that much of what they were told about drugs was a lie.

Calgary health educator Cheryl Houtekamer says such programs failed to teach kids how to avoid drugs, how to go about saying “no,” and how to find alternatives.

“It was very focused on the horrible consequences but [there was] very little information or support on how to prevent and build healthier people,” says Houtekamer.

Houtekamer, an Alberta Health Services program supervisor who manages health promotion services in the Calgary region says today’s approach offers young people many more tools and skills to deal with stress and self-esteem. The push is to give them more evidence-based information, rather than simplistic messages which have been proven ineffective.

For many years, the drug colour reaction chart that most harm reduction specialists used was somewhat limited in its efficacy. In early 2016 a new chart was released, allowing for more types of drugs to be verified. Photo by Ashley MateriA 1999 study conducted by eight scholars focused on what “impact” the D.A.R.E. program might have had. The researchers identified 1,002 Grade 6 students who had been exposed to the D.A.R.E. program “or a standard drug-education curriculum.” Ten years later, when the research subjects reached the age of 20, the scholars re-evaluated the students and concluded D.A.R.E. had no discernible impact on the students who took it, and very few differences were found between the two groups regarding self-esteem, drug use, or attitudes towards illegal drugs.

Recognizing that telling kids to “just say no” wasn’t helpful, Houtekamer says Alberta Health Services designed a more evidence-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum for grades 3 to 12. It encourages skill development by teaching young people how to manage stress, how to cultivate healthy relationships and how to communicate with people more effectively. The curriculum is available for free on the AHS website.

“We’re building these resilient youth who have skillsets so that if someone is feeling down or they’ve had something bad happen to them in their life, rather than say, ‘I’m going to go use drugs’ or ‘I’m going to go drink,’ they have all these other things that they could do,” Houtekamer says.

While drug educators contacted by The Calgary Journal agree they are making progress, there is still some disagreement about approaches. For example, Calgary harm reduction specialist Dominique Denis-Lalonde says people could learn from how she and others work on the front lines with young people using drugs at outdoor music festivals, such as the Shambhala Music Festival near Nelson, B.C.

Registered nurse and harm reduction specialist Dominique Denis-Lalonde has been working to bring better harm reduction strategies into Calgary, believing that there isn’t enough being done to protect users in the city. Photo by Ashley MateriBecause the festival is on private property, she and others are able to provide on-the-ground support to people using drugs. This includes volunteers performing drug tests for festival-goers, inviting youth who are having difficult experiences into safe spaces, and training volunteers to spot problems and connect directly with young people who are using drugs.

Denis-Lalonde says that although many youth at festivals on municipal property are running into problems, harm reduction specialists like her aren’t always welcome to do their work.

“As I see it, it has a lot to with our drug policy and how we want to just turn a blind eye and [pretend] it’s not happening at all at our events, but it clearly is.”

Another area where young people are using drugs is post-secondary institutions. Ria Meronek, a counsellor with Mount Royal University Wellness Services, feels students, many who would have been exposed to programs such as D.A.R.E. during their earlier education, lack good mechanisms to deal with the challenges that life throws at them, causing some to abuse drugs or alcohol.

“What makes one student successful over the other in terms of dealing with stress?” Meronek asks. “Do they have good stress managements skills, or are they turning to something as a quick fix to avoid or to escape?”

She wholly supports all approaches that teach younger children to tackle problems in healthier ways, including stress management and emotional regulation. The result, she says, is well-balanced adults and a healthier society.

amateri@cjournal.ca

Reporter’s Note: Article written with materials and research provided by Melanie Walsh, mwalsh@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca