What does prevention mean to me? It’s a really good question. I really struggled to work out what to write for this, because although my work is intertwined with prevention I don’t tend to think about it as a stand alone issue very often. Prevention is difficult, and I think as a stand alone aim it can be often unhelpful – think ‘just say no’ schemes – without tying prevention into a wider body of work around education and support, with harm reduction principles embedded throughout. I think that goes back to how you personally define prevention – for me it’s always got to be about prevention of unnecessary harm in all its forms, rather than prevention of use of drugs in the first place.
A lot of my work and research currently focuses on universities and their approach to students who use drugs, and it’s an area that I’ve been working on for a few years, since I started as an elected officer in my Students’ Union. ‘Prevention’ messaging is where most universities are at – they have ‘zero tolerance’ policies, and these are intrinsically linked to their disciplinary procedures. This means that universities are kicking students out of accommodation and study, and in some cases, reporting them to the police for their drug use – this seems bizarre to me when we have politicians currently coming out in waves about their own personal drug use when they were younger, and who would possibly be unlikely to hold their current positions had they been subject to these same policies at the time in question. Zero tolerance policies are often seen to be a way of discouraging drug use, although I wonder if most students know about these policy at all – on a personal level, I wasn’t aware of this while I studied and a project I was a research assistant with Release & NUS found that “‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary approaches to drugs, which rely on students’ awareness of the policy to deter certain behaviours, cannot be effective deterrents”.
To me, prevention in this context should focus on preventing harms – for example the harms that come from being referred into the criminal justice system, and the harms from being evicted from your accommodation, although this becomes more and more complex when you add in safeguarding responsibilities and the current drug legislation. Throughout my life, I’ve learnt that some people will use drugs no matter what you tell them, whether it was peers in my small home town or friends at university. So many of my friends laugh about their own drug prevention education because of the ‘just say no’ messaging that it focused on, and I can see why – it didn’t factor in that people in their peer group who were already using drugs and weren’t seeing the negatives that we were being told would definitely happen. When I was working with university students, and when I was one, I was surrounded by people who were struggling with finances, mental health, physical health, and a million other things – often drug use was recreational but sometimes with the aim of allowing them to detach from the reality of their daily struggles.
Prevention here should also be identifying this and looking to minimise these other issues – it’s all well and good having a local drug service signposted on your website, but if it’s a mainly opiate based service which only talks about addiction, how are you going to encourage young people who may not identify with that services aims to engage in support? If your local NHS is oversubscribed & impossible to access and your campus counsellors can’t see people for months, how can they manage their mental health alone? For me, prevention has to look at the root causes of drug use and aim to work on those areas, but this also has to include pleasure as a reason for drug use alone with no underlying negatives alongside it. It’s too big of a topic to delve into in a single blog post – maybe that’s why I’m writing a 12,000-word dissertation on university drug policies at the moment!
My other obvious link to prevention work is through my role as a trustee for Mentor – which I do voluntarily, because I feel strongly about the work that Mentor is doing. As a national charity, I’ve been overjoyed seeing links forming between others working in the area and the staff at Mentor and I think this is also key – organisations need to work together to support everyone in making informed choices, and to share knowledge and support each other.
Hanna Head is an MA Comparative Drugs & Alcohol Studies student at Middlesex University and a Mentor trustee.