Students today are extremely vulnerable to problems related to substance use. While this is not a school campus problem per say, it’s definitely a generational and cultural problem. Two of the standard questions I ask as part of a biopsychosocial assessment at the beginning of a counseling relationship is Are you now, or have you ever taken or misused drugs? and Do you drink alcohol? Many of my students answer that they’ve never used drugs. I find out through asking additional questions that most do not view marijuana as a drug, nor use of prescription drugs incorrectly as “misuse”.
With the increasing number of synthetic drugs, e-cigarettes, and I believe the largest growing problem, misuse of prescription drugs, it is imperative for educators to be able to spot signs of intoxication and withdrawal in order to identify high risk students and create appropriate preventative programs for them. For our purposes, the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder is not as important as understanding that use can interfere with appropriate academic, emotional and social development, stunting a student’s ability to cope effectively with stress, adapt to new situations and organize and implement positive goals for the future. Substance use can also closely mimic other mental health issues and learning disabilities.
According to a 2013 study done by the National Institute of Alcohol Use and Alcoholism, approximately 5.4 million people ages 12-20 engaged in binge drinking in the United States during the previous year. It seems that discussions I have regarding binge drinking and the negative effect that it has on appropriate developmental patterns creep lower and lower into the middle school grades each year. Prolonged alcohol use can cause significant psychological and behavioral changes in students such as agitation, aggressive or inappropriate behaviors, mood swings, and impaired judgement. I know that at times, these all sound like typical teenage behavior…knowing what is typical for a particular student is key. Drastic changes in behavior should be investigated further. Withdrawal symptoms like tremors, insomnia and vomiting are rare before a person reaches their 30’s.
Marijuana use is so often conveniently not included in what the rest of the world considers a drug by teenagers. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with students involving them explaining to me how marijuana is not a drug and marijuana use is not a big deal; everyone does it who cares. The truth is our country is widely divided on the subject and using marijuana is currently illegal in most places. No matter that my beliefs are on the stuff, I ask 1 question and stick to the facts. That question is: Is marijuana use causing problems in your life? The facts are found here: found here. Observable symptoms of marijuana intoxication include impaired judgement (again. With substance use, this is a common theme), impaired coordination, and slowed or retarded motor movements.
While surveys like those done by the National Institute on Drug abuse report that prescription and over the counter drug abuse was down as of 2014, I find this to be a growing problem among high school students in the metro-Detroit area. Especially when it comes to abuse of stimulants like Adderall, cough medicines containing dextromethorphan, and opioid pain relievers like codeine. Students abusing medications like these may appear drowsy and confused, complain of nausea, and not register pain at typical levels. Withdrawal symptoms will most likely include complains of pain in muscles, and pretty much everywhere, vomiting, alternating between chills and fever, stomach issues and trouble sleeping.
While it is widely believed that student populations at highest risk for a substance abuse related disorder are those who have conduct problems. I believe that students begin to use alcohol (and other substances really) in an attempt to cope with uncomfortable feelings involving life’s stressors like social interactions and pressures, academic performance expectations, stressful situations at home, and the list goes on.
Substance related disorders are not recognized as a disability under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act), which protects students with disabilities such as an Emotional Disturbance, or Specific Learning Disability. In fact, the finding that a student is using drugs or alcohol does not always mean that a school needs to evaluate a student for special services like those offered in a special education program. In some cases, the attempt to wrap a student using drugs or alcohol in special education services can actually make their symptoms worse, and allow the student to hide dysfunctional using behavior for longer. So how can we help these students?
Anti-drug campaigns are not enough, my personal opinion is that they are not successful on their own at all. I find that quite a few recovery or sobriety programs are very shamming focused, subconsciously of course. These programs focus on identifying addicts and addict behavior, and don’t focus enough on finding what an individual is attempting to cope with by using. School based programs geared towards increasing student’s sense of community, social and problem solving skills and emotional awareness are the way to go. Creating opportunities for students to have positive experiences on their school campus, helping to connect and ground them to their interpersonal (and academic, AND ACADEMIC) development is the best way to encourage effective, preventative measures.
Here is a link to one of the best school based recovery programs I’ve had the pleasure of working in.