This week’s blog is once again written by Janie Chodosh, author of Death Spiral, the very first offering of the Poisoned Pencil. Janie concludes her two-part essay on the problem of drug addiction and how it affects teens (an issue featured in her ground-breaking book)

Janie, once again you have the floor!

This week I read an article in the New York Times about a smart little gadget that a heroin user can carry that will easily deliver a life saving shot of the drug Naloxone for someone who’s overdosed on heroin. For the price tag of $500.00 a user can ensure no more unseemly visits to the ER when they overdose. The article got me thinking about what, besides smart and expensive gadgets, is being down to prevent heroin overdose and substance abuse in the first place—before the need for such smart gadgets even comes into play.

The Way It Is

Here’s what I know: The United States has both a skyrocketing budget on the war on drugs and record rates of drug-related incarcerations and still drug problems worsen. Two thirds of the federal drug control budget goes to incarceration and law enforcement while treatment, prevention, research, and education fight for the remaining third.  Conclusion: Our approach to the problem of drug abuse is upside down.

The Way it Should Be

Drug abuse is a health problem, and its solution demands a public health approach, an approach that focuses on prevention, treatment, and education. According to a federal report by the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention: “Alternative programming appears to be most effective among those youth at greatest risk for substance abuse and related problems…alternative programming can be defined as those that provide activities that are free of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.” In other words, getting youth interested and involved in life is an effective way of preventing adolescent drug abuse. Sounds good, but how?

Community Support

In my years as a teacher I have learned first hand that kids who have a mentor, and kids who are engaged in an activity they care about are more likely to stay in school and less likely to use drugs. Which leads me to the question of community support of youth. The age-old teen adage goes something like this: This place (insert name of town) sucks. There’s nothing to do. Finding activities for teens who adhere to the previous statement is not always easy, but it’s worth the investment. On a macro scale, governments from the city to federal level should invest in meaningful and diverse after-school programs, mentoring programs, skills-building/job-training programs, and summer job programs. This investment does not just mean an intramural basketball league for athletically minded teens, although sports can be a positive, anti-drug outlet. The key to me is the words meaningful and diverse. One size does not fit all. Funding must be diversified, offering free and low cost opportunities for myriad community activities from arts and technology to mechanics and vocational skills.

One example of a community coming together to battle drug use is found in Houston where a group of community organizations have started TASK (Totally Awesome and Sober Kids). The TASK Program combines the expertise and resources of a variety of local community groups to work with teens and young people who battle substance abuse. The TASK program offers a variety of activities and services, including tutoring, sports, field trips and prevention classes, along with an art component and mentoring.

Mentoring

The underlying causes of drug use can’t be ignored. Depression, anxiety, negative role models, and alienation are all issues that play a role in the modern teen experience. This is where mentoring comes in. At its most basic level, mentoring helps because it guarantees a young person that there is someone who cares about them. The 2013 study “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles,” examined mentoring program relationships, experiences and benefits for higher-risk youth and found, among other things, that with mentoring, there was a reduction in depressive symptoms across groups.

Another study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that mentored youth have better school attendance; mentoring appears to help prevent substance abuse and reduce some negative youth behaviors, and taking part in mentoring promotes positive social attitudes and relationships. Mentored youth tend to trust their parents more and communicate better with them.

A Call to Action

U.S. drug policy has largely been a law enforcement issue. Existing programs have been criticized for focusing on punishing the end users while ignoring the suppliers and encouraging teens to rat on each other. It’s time to rethink our strategies and come up with ways to support our most valuable resource, our nation’s youth.