Scaring young people about substance use won’t work

Jacky Jones: Whole school approach requires time and commitment from parents and teachers

In the past few weeks, two young Cork men died as a result of synthetic drug use. The deaths have prompted some second-level teachers to ask people whose relatives have died as a result of drug abuse to visit schools to talk to pupils about the dangers of drugs.

Why are school principals facilitating this kind of ineffective drug education? Why are they still allowing young people to be scared and using fear to teach young people about substance use, including the use of illegal drugs, when it is clear, or should be, that such approaches don’t work?

In 2010 every second-level school received a circular from the Department of Education and Skills (DES) outlining best practice in the mandatory implementation of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), which includes drug education.

Schools were advised to avoid "scare tactics"

The circular specified the criteria that must apply when external facilitators/speakers are invited to contribute to the SPHE curriculum.


“Research findings indicate that the following teaching approaches have limited effect and are counterproductive to the effective implementation of SPHE.”

Schools were advised to avoid “scare tactics, sensationalism, personal testimonials, information-only interventions, and once-off or short-term interventions”.

Research over the past 40 years has shown that few programmes have had a beneficial long-term effect on preventing substance abuse.

A comprehensive study carried out in the Netherlands in the 1970s when scare tactics were popular in many countries, including Ireland, involved over 1,000 students aged 14 to16.

The students were divided into four groups. Group one received no drug education; group two received drug education employing scare tactics; group three received factual information only; and group four received a discussion-based programme which concentrated on students’ lives and problems.

Drug experimentation

The findings showed that the warning and information approaches increased drug experimentation and existing drug users did not reduce their drug use or stop using drugs regardless of the approach used.

Researchers concluded that “substance-orientated drug education programmes, either purely factual or using scare tactics, had a stimulating effect on drug experimentation”.

Ineffectual approaches concentrate on the topic rather than the social context

Many other studies found similar results whatever the topic, including: alcohol misuse, tobacco use, gambling, crisis pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections.

Ineffectual approaches all have one thing in common: they concentrate on the topic rather than the social context and students’ life skills.

Although many studies date from the 1970s and 1980s, the findings are relevant today. The 2014 Report of the Working Group on Educational Materials for use in SPHE in Post-Primary Schools and Centres for Education with particular reference to Substance Use Education in the context of SPHE states that the best practice circular sent to schools in 2010 still applies.

Teachers can feel pressurised by parents and communities to do something, anything

The report cites a 2010 “comprehensive” Irish study which found that “by far, the most important factor in reducing the risk of substance use by young people was the strong, protective, supportive relationships with teachers and having a positive school experience”.

Why are schools using what could be seen as “scare tactics” and information-only approaches?

Undoubtedly, teachers can feel pressurised by parents and communities to do something, anything, to prevent substance abuse, particularly when a pupil dies.

“Just say no”

But using ineffective approaches is worse than doing nothing. It is as bad as preaching “just say no” to teenagers when they need a 100-hour course in SPHE and assertiveness skills. It is akin to offering an obese person a dietary leaflet when they need bariatric surgery.

There is a mismatch between what is needed in relation to substance use education and what is happening

The 2014 DES report recommends a whole school approach. This means that the school has effective policies on all health matters, has a school environment that promotes health, has strong links with the parents and community, and teachers are well trained in facilitation skills and, according to the report, “fostering critical thinking”.

Whole school approaches cost money, time and commitment from parents and teachers. There is a mismatch between what is needed in relation to substance use education and what is happening.

Research carried out by the DES shows that, contrary to best practice, almost all schools provide information on the risks associated with alcohol and illegal drugs and use once-off external speakers.

Parents seem to be more interested in exam points than whether their children are resilient enough to survive substance use and abuse. Teachers are more interested in keeping a version of the Junior Cert than ensuring all students have a positive school experience.

The Junior Cert should have been scrapped completely. Teenagers from all socio-economic groups need a decent Leaving Cert and must not be legally allowed to leave school until they have this basic life qualification.