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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Drugs and alcohol education – Why we need a more nuanced approach

photograph of glass of wine and cannabis to illustrate concept of drugs and alcohol education

To equip young people with essential knowledge regarding alcohol and drugs, we need lessons that are less didactic and more engaging, says Helena Conibear

Helena Conibear
by Helena Conibear
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Tried & tested strategies to boost mental health
SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

When planning for alcohol and drug education, it’s all too easy for lessons to slip into approaches that centre on scare tactics, or the imparting of too much information.

There’s evidence to show that neither approach will positively influence students’ behaviour, nor reduce their inclination to drink or take drugs.

Drug education instead requires a highly nuanced approach. One that draws on different age appropriate materials as pupils mature and empowers students to make informed choices, but which can also build resilience and facilitate dialogue that enables young people to make positive decisions for themselves.

Pupils often cite the repetitive or preachy nature of drug education as their main reasons for not engaging. Just 1% of pupils in Y7 drink alcohol regularly. However, 13 is the average age by which teenagers will have drunk their first alcohol drink – overwhelmingly in the family home – making Y8 and Y9 the groups you most urgently need to talk to about alcohol.

Reverse the discussion

That said, we ought to remember that 56% of 11 to 15-year-olds haven’t even tried alcohol, making it difficult to strike a balance between safeguarding those at risk of early drinking or drunkenness, and those who might be tempted to start drinking if the topic isn’t covered appropriately.

How a question is framed can make a fundamental difference. A question such as ‘Why do people drink alcohol?’ will tend to produce answers that in effect promote drinking: ‘To have fun’; ‘To fit in’; ‘To rebel’.

However, you can reverse this discussion point by instead asking, ‘Why do most teenagers choose not to drink?’ The answers you’ll get will likely include ‘Because it’s against the law’; ‘They could get into trouble’; ‘It will affect their work’; ‘It’s bad for their health’. This approach can also be helpful in establishing correct norms, since most students will overestimate their older peers’ drinking and drug taking habits.

Given that parents and carers are the prime source of alcohol consumed by teenagers, and often those who will allow alcohol at parties, Y9 is the ideal time to host a face-to-face or virtual Talking To Kids About Alcohol talk. This event should be supportive, providing positive tips for parents on how to cope with teen pressure, while ensuring they understand the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance for parents on alcohol and the effects of its early use on the teenage brain.

The cannabis factor

Teenagers face huge pressures to fit in, and will need to know how to stay safe around alcohol, whether they choose to drink themselves or not. Equipping older teenagers with the knowledge and skills to navigate parties and festivals, consent, independent travel abroad and transitions to college or university where they will no longer be within the structure of school or family life can be very tough.

Alcohol and cannabis (and the latter’s derivatives) continue to be closely intertwined with party and festival culture. According to the government’s 10-Year Drug Strategy, 20% of 16 to 24-year-olds have used cannabis within the last year. This has fast become a very complex area, due in part to the increasing availability of cannabis derivatives, ranging from gummy bears to THC-laced vapes, as well as a persistent belief by many young people that cannabis is no more – or indeed less – harmful than alcohol.

While rates of underage alcohol use and young adult binge drinking and drunkenness are declining overall, cannabis use is on the rise. To help address the co-use of alcohol and cannabis (both depressants) and the spread of legal CBD products and legalisation in some countries, the Alcohol Education Trust has developed workshops on cannabis for 16 to 25-year-olds, alongside training for professionals working with them.

For more information on these, visit alcoholeducatointrust.org, our online learning zone for teenagers at talkaboutalcohol.com, or our life-stuff.org site, which provides advice on various areas of wellbeing for older teenagers.

Helena Conibear is the CEO and founder of the Alcohol Education Trust (@talkalcohol) – a youth charity working nationally with schools, special schools, PRUs and alternative settings to keep young people safe around alcohol

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