Advocacy Guide for National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week (2021)

“The approaches to educating teens about substance use have moved from well-intentioned ideas to programs that are rooted in science.”

John Lisy, Executive Director of the Shaker Heights Youth Center

Telling kids to ‘just say no’ just doesn’t work. Today’s approach to drug education and substance use disorder programs has to focus, instead, on high doses of compassion and science. The stakes are high: nearly 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, but only 10 percent receive treatment; more than 90 percent of those who do have an addiction started to drink alcohol or use drugs before they were 18 years old.

National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week (NDAFW) is a step in the right direction. Launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2010, it links students with scientists and other experts to shatter the myths about substance use and addiction. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) became a partner in 2016. This year’s NDAFW takes place from March 22-28, 2021, and the theme is “Shatter the Myths.”

In the past, some drug and alcohol prevention programs focused on casting substance use disorder as a moral issue. But NDAFW seeks to tell a purer truth: every drug has consequences, especially for a teenager’s developing body and brain. Giving teens the unadulterated facts about drugs and alcohol empowers them to make better decisions for themselves, and pass the information on to their friends and family.

“The approaches to educating teens about substance use have moved from well-intentioned ideas to programs that are rooted in science,” says John Lisy, OCPC, LICDC-CS, LISW-S, LPCC-S, Executive Director of the Shaker Heights Youth Center and member of NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals.

Educating teens about drugs and alcohol has been an iterative process. It was once thought that showing youth displays of illegal drugs—pills, powders, and processed plants—would be helpful in preventing use and abuse. For some students, this approach taught them more about how to be a consumer of illegal drugs than anything else.

The widely publicized Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which has been put into place across 75 percent of US school districts, doesn’t work as well as one would hope: a 2009 meta-review of 20 academic studies found that teens enrolled in the DARE program were just as likely to use drugs as those who received no intervention.

Other research has suggested that more successful drug education programs involve substantial interactions between instructors and students, and equip teens with strong social skills.

“Education involves interaction between the professional and their audience,” Lisy says. “The give-and-take is essential in influencing attitudes and behavior. Education is not limited to understanding drugs of abuse, but seeks to build resiliency in youth through social/emotional learning.”

The second factor in the more modern approach to prevention is rooted in environmental interventions. Environmental interventions seek to change standards or policies to reduce the prevalence of substance use in the population. The societal shift in attitudes regarding smoking tobacco, for example, can be seen as a successful environmental intervention.

“Early on the nearly sole focus was on illegal drugs,” Lisy says. “Currently the focus is on all drugs of abuse, including two of the deadliest substances: tobacco and alcohol.”

The majority of prevention work, when it comes to drugs and alcohol, is done by certified prevention professionals. Counselors and social workers may play a role, too, but the laws and rules governing prevention services vary from state to state. Generally speaking, counselors and social workers can help their clients manage and treat addiction. But adolescent addiction is too often seen by non-professionals as a dysfunctional phase and something to be grown out of; youths who would otherwise benefit from treatment are not identified as a result.

“When an individual’s use of a substance begins to have negative consequences in one’s life, that individual needs to change his or her behavior,” Lisy says. “But when that individual’s attempts to make those changes are unsuccessful or the consequences are significantly impactful, it is time to see an addiction professional. The professional can help the individual evaluate one’s relationship with the substance being misused and develop a plan for change.”

Addiction professionals face a wide range of issues, but the opiate epidemic has been particularly crushing. On a personal level, addiction professionals have had to come to terms with the heartbreaking number of youth fatalities that have resulted from opiate addiction. On a macro level, the number of new patients needing treatment for opiate addiction is overburdening the system.

“The ability to provide treatment on demand to all addicted individuals—no matter their drug of choice—is crucially important to both the individual and our society,” Lisy says. “Unfortunately, we are not able to provide this critical service, to treat this life-threatening disease upon demand.”

To learn about some of the biggest myths and facts around drugs and alcohol and to find out how you can connect with the organizations behind National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week, read on.

Facts & Myths About Drugs & Alcohol

Myth: Addiction Is a Choice

Everyone’s body reacts differently to drugs, and addiction is rarely if ever a conscious decision. One person may try a drug and immediately want more, while someone else may try a drug and feel no desire to do it again.

Research suggests that up to 50 percent of someone’s risk of addiction is related to their genetic makeup. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can increase one’s risk further; one’s environment and peer group play a role, too. The decision to do drugs for the first time may be a free choice, but addiction is a disease. Quitting takes more than just willpower.

Myth: Cannabis Isn’t Addictive

Despite its increasing legality, cannabis is still a psychoactive drug, meaning it alters a user’s brain function. And while cannabis falls on the less-addictive side of the spectrum of drugs, it still can cause withdrawal symptoms in chronic users trying to quit. Symptoms of withdrawal may include insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, and the desire to use again. Those who have difficulty quitting may have cannabis use disorder—the extreme end of which is classified as an addiction.

Myth: Alcohol Is the Least Dangerous Drug

Nearly 100,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes every year, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Furthermore, approximately 4,300 people under the age of 21 die each year from injuries caused by underage drinking, with 35 percent of those deaths coming from car accidents.

Underage drinking is particularly sinister because the human brain continues to develop well into a person’s twenties; alcohol use before that age can affect brain structure and function, and create cognitive or learning problems. Don’t let its legality fool you: alcohol is a serious drug.

Myth: Prescription Drugs Are Safe Drugs

Prescription opioids, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, come from the same class of drugs as heroin. In the US, they contribute to more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. They aren’t the only dangerous prescription drugs, either: medicines for anxiety and ADHD can be extremely powerful, and, particularly when abused or mixed with other substances, lead to serious health problems such as seizures, heart attacks, and respiratory failure.

Prescription drugs are only safe when they’re used as directed, by a physician, for a specific condition.

Myth: Most Teens Drink Alcohol

Think everyone’s doing it? Think again. In 2019, only 21 percent of teens reported having had a drink in the last year. Furthermore, the number of teens who report having had a drink in the last month has actually decreased over the last ten years—by one-third amongst 12th graders and by half among 8th graders.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking alcohol is a guy’s thing, either: recent surveys have found that, for teenagers, more girls than boys report using alcohol.

Myth: Only People With Addiction Need Help

Research shows that adolescents can benefit from substance use disorder intervention even if they aren’t addicted to a drug. For teens, even the slightest experimentation with drugs can have long-lasting effects on the developing brain and can quickly escalate into issues with family, school, and friends.

Being able to talk with a compassionate addiction professional who is knowledgeable in the subject can make all the difference.

Myth: Vaping Is Better Than Cigarettes

While traditional cigarette use is decreasing amongst teens, an alarming number of teens are vaping nicotine and THC. It’s important to note that many of the health concerns related to cigarettes also apply to vaping: addiction, lung disease, and effects on prenatal development.

Additionally, there have been reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that vaping can cause serious lung illnesses on a very compressed timescale. And, due to the relative newness of vaping, researchers still don’t know what the long-term effects will be. What they do know is this: teens who vape are more likely to start smoking tobacco within a year.

Resources for National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week

Whether you’re a student, a parent, a professional, or an activist, you can get involved with National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week. Check out the resources below to pitch in and help shatter the myths around drugs and alcohol.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): A component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NIDA gives teens, and those who influence them, facts about drugs and their effects on the brain and body.
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Also a component of NIH, NIAAA has the mission of disseminating fundamental knowledge about the effects of alcohol on health and well-being, and applying that knowledge to improve the treatment of alcohol-related problems.
  • National Drug & Alcohol IQ Challenge: This teachable quiz includes 11 questions about drugs and alcohol, along with two ‘Brainiac’ questions that really test your prefrontal cortex. Don’t worry, the answers, and the fact-based sources they derive from, are included at the back.
  • Social Media Kits: Social media is an easy and impactful way to spread awareness during National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week. Here you can find downloadable Facebook frames, temporary profile pictures, and pledge cards for selfies and videos.
  • National Drug & Alcohol Chat Day: On March 24, 2021, there will be a live, online chat event held between high school students and NIDA scientists. Students can ask any questions they want about drugs and drug misuse; expert scientists will supply the answers.
  • Mind Matters: The Mind Matters series contains nine booklets that each explore the effects of a different drug on the brain. Intended as a teaching resource for students in grades five to nine, the materials are available in both English and Spanish.
  • National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week Teaching Guide: NIDA supplies teachers and other addiction professionals with research, infographics, classroom materials, and sample questions.
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.