Schools can play a key role in preventing alcohol and drug problems. Learn how parents and the wider communities can help them.
Alcohol and drug (AOD) education in schools alone can’t be expected to outweigh the impact of cultural traditions, sophisticated marketing of alcohol and tobacco, and the powerful role modelling by parents, siblings and other adults. However, schools can contribute to attitude and behaviour change around AOD, just as they did in the case of the social campaign against smoking.
The case for AOD education is this: young people need to be informed about these issues because they live in a world in which AOD use is everywhere. Even if young people don’t use these substances, AOD can affect their lives in a number of ways, including through people who do use them.1
Many experts think the benefits outweigh the costs of AOD education in schools² because some research has shown that this education can stop or delay use.3,4 Preventing or delaying early use for as long as possible is important because it predicts problems and dependence later in life.5 If your school can make an effort to do this, even by a year or two, it is likely to reduce short and long-term harms.
While it’s best that school-based programs aim to delay the start of AOD use, they can include harm minimisation principles as well. These education activities should be included in the school curriculum and there should be an effort to ensure all students receive the same message.6
Some experimental Australian programs such as the School Health and Alcohol Harm Reduction Project (SHAHRP) and the CLIMATE program have reported reducing AOD use and related harm. SHAHRP provided an extensive program of interactive activities for students in years 8 and 9. While most students continued to drink at risky levels after the program, they were 23% less likely to experience alcohol-related harm.7 When a similar program (Drug Education in Victorian Schools) was conducted in Victoria, students drank less, got drunk less, and had fewer alcohol-related harms.8 The CLIMATE program reduced student binge drinking and cannabis use after 12 months.6
While the SHAHRP and CLIMATE initiatives tested well as pilot programs, there is a gap between best practice and routine practice in schools.6 Due to lack of support, AOD education often has a low priority in the curriculum, so what actually happens can vary a lot across schools. Parents and other community members can play a role in advocating for their local schools to implement best practice AOD education.
As well as including AOD education in the curriculum, communities can also help schools reduce personal and social risk factors that influence young people to use these substances, and promote protective factors that make use less likely and have a less negative impact. Protective factors include feeling connected to and enjoying school, having quality peer and adult relationships, and having an optimistic view of the future.9
AOD programs in schools do not have to be limited to a focus on personal use. Schools can also ensure that young people know how to access help and advice in the community when it’s needed. This is something communities could play a role in, as demonstrated in the case study on the Western Alcohol Reduction Program.
The western area of Melbourne in Victoria has a high proportion of AOD-related harm among young people.
The Western Alcohol Reduction Program connected local police, AOD workers and hospital staff with schools to develop a better relationship between these services and students. The aim of the program was to address alcohol-related behaviour resulting in assaults, falls and other preventable consequences of risk-taking behaviour. One of the strengths of this program was that it sought to build a healthy relationship between at-risk adolescents and members of the health community.
The program was developed with teachers from local schools to ensure it complemented the curriculum and worked well for the students. It was run over a single day, and included presentations, scenarios, a DVD and a number of talks and interactive activities by AOD workers, emergency department nurses, police, youth liaison officers, and young people who had physical or mental illness resulting from excessive alcohol consumption or the use of ‘party’ drugs. In 2013, the program was run six times as part of a pilot that was evaluated by Deakin University.
Deakin University found that after the program there was a 27% reduction in the number of people who agreed with the statement ‘Ambulance officers will contact the police for an alcohol or drug overdose’. This is an important result given a key objective of the program was to develop a better relationship between emergency services and students.