At Mentor, we’re in the midst of doing research with young people and teachers to learn more about how they view alcohol and drug education. This is part of our continuing work on our ADEPIS resources (mentor-adepis.org), making sure they’re user friendly and up-to-date. We’ve sent out hundreds of surveys to teachers, but we’re also meeting in person with young people and school staff to hear directly from them about their experiences. The responses so far have been refreshingly honest and revealing.
Young people think they learn more about alcohol and other drugs online, through the media and from friends than in the classroom. One pupil of 13 thought he was well informed, telling us, “We can access so much more from the media, Internet and TV now. I think school underestimates how much we know. They treat us like we’re younger than we are”. Teachers, however, said they did not feel confident fielding factual questions from their students about specific drugs and their effects. Students might want to know more about the effects of substances on physical and mental health from their teachers, but many don’t feel they have the training or experience to provide this.
There is a worrying lack of consistency in the frequency and impact of alcohol and drug education for young people. Most teenagers we spoke to couldn’t remember what they had been taught in school (and when) and some couldn’t recall having had any substance misuse education at all. For those who did remember the message was clear: it’s boring. Perhaps this response to school is typical for teenagers, but the young people we spoke to have identified a specific problem in the case of drug education. They said teachers didn’t encourage discussion and interaction. One 15-year-old told us, “Debates [make it] interesting. Instead of sitting and watching PowerPoint we should be allowed to have a discussion”.
For older teenagers, the issue was a bit more complicated. Some had already experimented with alcohol and other drugs by the time they said they remembered getting education about these at school. Because they had personal experience, or second-hand knowledge from a friend about certain substances, these young people didn’t necessarily consider them dangerous. Their classes delivered a simple message: “drugs are bad and you’re bad if you do them”. Not only did this stop them feeling able to ask questions or seek help and advice, it made them feel like a lost cause. As one 17-year-old told us, “People [I know] say [if] you’re safe and know what you’re doing then you’ll be fine and you are. Then you get this other side [at school] that says, “it’s dangerous and you’ll die”. It’s just confusing”.
Older teenagers said they knew that most people who try drugs don’t become addicts, so the focus in much drug education on highly addictive drugs (like heroin) was unhelpful. As one 17-year-old said, “Some teenagers might be taking a bit of MDMA, but most are not going to be injecting themselves with heroin”. They also thought they weren’t getting the right information about drugs that they were exposed to, like Ketamine.
Young people in focus groups identified Ketamine as a drug they knew their friends used. Very few of them, however, said they would be confident talking about its health effects, or those of lower-class drugs generally. Young people said this worried them, as they didn’t feel able to give advice to a friend who might be using, or know what to do if something went wrong. One teenager told us, “[We shouldn’t work] under the assumption that no one is going to take it [drugs]”. Rather, alcohol and drug education should be like sex education: taught pre-emptively in year 8 (13-14-years-old), where it includes advice about contraception. In other words, it should include some harm-reduction advice.
Young people told us that the message of “don’t do it” was even less useful when it came to alcohol. They discussed alcohol being a part of family life and told us they knew a lot of young people who were given alcohol for the first time by their parents at home. One 18-year-old told us, “There are more sides to it than just, “don’t do it” because most of us will drink alcohol”. They perceived a “drinking culture” in Britain and were quick to spot the hypocrisy of approaches to alcohol education that only emphasised abstinence and framed under-age drinking in moral terms.
Instead, they said that they needed more discussion about why adults drank to excess and the effects of this on physical and mental health. One older teenager told us, “I started drinking from 13, 14. I saw adults using it to help them deal with stress and stuff. What I know from experience is it makes things a lot worse.” This is a remarkably mature revelation, though a stark reminder of why some young people might be drawn to trying alcohol at such a young age and feel its use is appropriate. Effective approaches to alcohol education with young people must take these issues into account.
Overall, the deafening response from young people to our research has been a call for more information and the creation of learning environments where they can question and engage in open and honest conversations with their teachers. But, teachers want and need more training and resources. Almost all the teachers we spoke to currently feel unprepared to deliver what young people say they need to make healthy choices for their futures.
Young people also recognize there is a taboo about talking about alcohol and other drugs, especially in school. They know this short-circuits discussion around topics like underage drinking or illegal drug use. For those who may already be exposed to substance use this means they don’t ask for help and advice. At the same time, teachers do not yet feel they are prepared enough to talk in detail about specific substances and are concerned about offering harm reduction advice. This has created a double bind.
We know what we’re hearing from young people – their message is loud and clear. Current approaches to drug education simply aren’t working. Oversimplifying and moralising the issues is not helping. It may, in fact, be harming. Alcohol and drug education needs overhauling. The change in legislation that will make SRE and health education in schools in England statutory is a start. However, it is only a start. Without appropriate levels of training and support and the creation of content to help teachers deliver what young people say they need, we are facing the risk of a missed opportunity.
At Mentor, we are doing our bit by transforming ADEPIS and our already existing resources to meet the needs of teachers, parents and carers and all those who have a stake in young people’s futures. But we cannot do it alone. Others need to step up if we are to make drug education in the UK effective and responsive to the needs of young people today.
If you are a young person or a teacher and you want to get involved in our ongoing research, please – we want to hear from you! Please contact:
Kate Holley: firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are a young person aged 11-18
Richard Lynas: email@example.com if you are a teacher.