New Anti Drug Program Shows Promise, Identifies At-Risk Traits In Youth
Like many, I grew up with the D.A.R.E. Program, presented as middle school curriculum. At the time, it made sense to me. As I went deeper into my teens, it began to feel more like scare tactics. While I never indulged in hard drugs, I certainly did my share of moderate experimentation with alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants.
One of the problems with anti drug programs is that traditionally, they do nothing to help children who are at high-risk. Education is not the same as prevention.
It helps, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are children already immersed in substance-abusing environments, or who have already suffered trauma or mental illness which makes them predisposed to seek out substances in the first place.
And they certainly do not address the variations in how the human brain operates in regard to addiction.
However, there is a new anti drug program being tested in Australia, Canada, and Europe that offers some hope. It’s known as Preventure, and was designed by a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, Patricia Conrod.
What makes this program different is that it acknowledges that a child’s temperament contributes to drug use risk, as well as the many traits that may lead to addiction.
The fact is, most teens who experiment with alcohol and drugs don’t get addicted. However, there’s a few who do, and the task at hand has been to figure out what’s different about those children.
You might be surprised by the traits this program identifies as high-risk. They have less to do with environmental cues, and more to do with the child’s innate personality.
They include sensation-seeking behavior, impulsiveness, sensitivity to anxiety, and feelings hopelessness. Of these traits, at least 3 are linked to mental illness. Impulsivity is seen in bipolar disorder, hopelessness in depression, and anxiety pretty much speaks for itself. I myself am bipolar and suffer panic attacks, so all of these traits speak to me loudly.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. For me, high levels of these traits were applicable, and may help explain why I became an alcoholic later in life.
The good news is, now many at-risk children can be identified early on, when the presence of certain traits are assessed. Indeed, an amazing 90% of high risk children can be identified using the personality testing method inherent in this program.
About The Program
Preventure begins with a 2-3 day training course for teachers. This is basically a crash course in therapeutic techniques shown to address psychological issues. The goal is to create awareness of those with at-risk personalities, and possibly help them navigate their way out of the dangerous territory that may later lead to significant mental illness and substance abuse.
At the beginning of the school year, middle school students take a personality test in order to identify the outliers, so to speak. In later months, two 90-minute workshops, described as a way to use personality as a path to success, are offered to the entire school – but seats are limited.
When the selection actually takes place, it appears to others as random. But in reality, those with personality trait outliers are the ones chosen. They are then assigned to the workshop targeted toward the trait that puts them most at risk.
Initially, students are unaware of why they were chosen. However, if they do ask (most do not) they are told.
“There’s no labeling This reduces the chances that kids will make a label like “high risk” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In the workshops, students are taught cognitive behavioral techniques intended to address certain behavior and emotional problems.
So far, the program has been tested in 8 random trials in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada. Each reported reductions alcohol-related problems and drug use. In 2013, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry included over 2,600 British students aged 13-14 years. Half were randomized to the program.
The results? The program reported a reduction in drinking (in select schools) by 29%. That included those who did not attend workshops. Those children who attended, however, had a reduction in binge drinking by 43%
According to Conrod, the program may have affected those who did not participate due to reduced peer pressure from high-risk persons. In addition, teacher training may have increased instructor empathy to the high-risk children, thus increasing school connection – a factor shown to reduce drug use.
In addition, a 2009 study revealed that the program resulted in decreased depression, panic attacks, and impulsivity.
It appears that by the identification and subsequent awareness/treatment of high-risk students, it’s not only those student who are affected. It has a ripple effect, also creating positive repercussions among peers.
I wonder if I had been privy to such an anti drug program, would I have been identified as high-risk? Could it have changed the course of my life?
For some lucky children, this may be the answer.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology