How to Talk About Drug Addiction in the Midst of an Epidemic
Our November-December issue features an incredibly poignant piece on the ways in which our country's heroin epidemic has devastated one Connecticut community. Through the stories of four teens touched by opiate addiction, "Heroin Took Over Our Town" will help your students:
- Recognize addiction as a disease
- Learn how and why drug use hurts the individual
- Understand the ways in which drug use affects friends and family too
No doubt, it's a crucial article for your students right now, but the startling statistics that give this story such urgency also introduce a challenge for teachers. In your class, you may have teens struggling with opiate use themselves, or a student dealing with a volatile situation at home due to a family member's addiction. That's exactly why we reached out to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids to get their advice for navigating this topic with honesty, respect, and sensitivity.
Pay attention to your word choice. The language we use to describe the disease of addiction can either perpetuate or overcome the stereotypes, stigma, and lack of empathy. So try your very best to paint addiction as a health issue, not a moral failure. For example:
- Instead of calling someone an addict, junkie, or druggie, say "a person with a substance use disorder" or "a person with an addiction." This way, the disease does not define them.
- Instead of "clean" or "sober" say "in recovery."
- Instead of "drug abuse" say "drug use."
- Instead of "enable" or "co-dependent" say "supporting a loved one" or "advocating for a loved one's healthcare."
- Instead of "relapse" say "setback." (Relapse doesn't mean failure--it can be a learning experience.)
Offer a shame-free discussion zone. Explain to your class up front that addiction is a disease, and like with any disease, many people have it in their families. There's nothing to be ashamed of, and the only way it will be discussed is with sensitivity. If students are then vocal about the struggles of a friend or family member, don't panic. It may be helpful and comforting for your students to hear that others have addiction in the family. Some resources to share:
- These Stories of Hope offer proof that addiction is treatable and recovery is possible.
- This comprehensive list may encourage a student who is struggling silently to reach out for help.
Just preach "drugs are bad." Instead, be empathetic of the challenges teens face, and ask questions that get students thinking through the consequences of using drugs--as well as the alternatives. Some examples:
- Reinforce that when a person is high, his or her judgment is not what it ordinarily is. Ask: "In what ways can that put a person at risk?" (Use the Partnership's Marijuana Talk Kit for more help with this approach.)
- Explain that, often unknowingly, many teens turn to a substance to numb themselves and avoid their feelings. Ask: "What are some healthy ways you can cope?" (Possible answers: yoga, reading, sports, deep breathing!)
- Acknowledge that it's not easy to go against the crowd. Then say, "Let's brainstorm. What are some ways that you can turn down an offer to use drugs - ideas that you would actually feel comfortable saying out loud?"
- Gently encourage students to reach out for help if they or a friend or family member is struggling. Ask: "Who in your life can you talk to if you ever need support or advice?"
Normalize drug use. When speaking with teens, we don't want them to think "everyone is doing it." So how do you communicate the gravity of our country's current addiction crisis without normalizing drug use? Easy: Point out how many teens aren't using drugs (77% of all teens ages 12-17 have never used an illicit drug, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health) while emphasizing the point of this particular story: For those that suffer from addiction, it is a brutal disease--and its toll on one person can send shockwaves through families, schools, and communities.
Please visit the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids for additional information: