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The first education program I offered that dealt with drugs and alcohol was titled “All About Getting a Good Healthy Buzz, and Other Ways of Getting High.” In addition, my first book, co-authored with a colleague, was "That Happy Feeling." Those were in 1975 and 1979, respectively. Now, four decades later, the titles remain relevant, perhaps more so than ever. Why? First, they resonate with many of the foundations of drug and alcohol use and misuse. They acknowledge some of what individuals seek when they use drugs or consume alcohol. Second, while our campus efforts to address drug and alcohol concerns show some progress, problems associated with these substances remain high; we still have a long way to go. Third, it is important that each of us, regardless of our role on or with college campuses, take a closer, and perhaps a different, look at what we can do to make a significant difference. These comprise a sensible approach.
|Dr. David S. Anderson|
The factor regarding personal motivations for substance use is central when developing policies, programs, services, and strategies appropriate for the college campus and beyond. The multiple reasons for drug and alcohol use are generally intertwined, typically not articulated and often not conscious. Further, these reasons are often not systematically addressed by college and university leaders as they seek to reduce drug and alcohol misuse.
Why is it vital to address the reasons people use drugs or alcohol? Simply put, this focus is on reducing the demand. If the motivations for the use of substances are social in nature, then we can identify ways to enhance those factors; consider reasons such as to be friendly, to loosen up, to be liked, to meet people, and to celebrate. If the motivations are more emotional in nature, such as to escape, to gain confidence, to boost self-esteem, or to numb emotions, consider other ways of addressing these in healthy ways. Similarly, strategies can be used to address better cognitive reasons (such as to focus attention, be more creative, organize thoughts, or appreciate the scene) or physical reasons (to relax, to relieve stress, to calm jitters, to unwind, or to get a buzz). If those factors leading to drug/alcohol use were stronger, demand for drugs or alcohol would naturally diminish. That would be a sensible approach.
Second, we know so much more now about the science surrounding effective programs, policies, and services. We know that single approaches or one-time strategies are not what make a difference. We know the value of comprehensive, grounded, needs-based, and student-engaged approaches. With my co-authored College Alcohol Survey, conducted triennially since 1979, campus administrators document the scope of the problem, and what they are doing regarding policies, programs, services, and more (see www.caph.gmu.edu). The most recent (2015) data highlights the extent of alcohol’s involvement with various campus issues: violation of campus policies (57 percent); residence hall damage (50 percent); emotional difficulty (35 percent); physical injury (35 percent), and lack of academic success (30 percent). While this question addresses only alcohol, imagine the results if the use of marijuana, opiates, and other drugs were included. Further, these rates have not changed dramatically since 1985; then, they were, respectively, 51 percent, 61 percent, 34 percent, 44 percent, and 29 percent. Thus, not only is the extent of problems high, but also minimal change is noted over 30 years.
In addition, the College Alcohol Survey documents that the vast majority (88 percent) of college campuses have policies that require alcohol-free beverages when alcohol is served, compared with just over one-half in 1979. Data collection about students’ substance use, knowledge, and attitudes is much more widespread than decades ago. Peer educators are found on three-quarters of campuses, and orientation addresses substance abuse on over 90 percent of campuses (this was 38 percent in 1982). Moreover, a campus coordinator is found on virtually all (91 percent) campuses, compared with 14 percent in 1979. These and many other variables document that much more is being done on some fronts. However, major gaps remain; these include limited institutional reviews of effectiveness on a biennial basis, virtually no change with attention to the unique needs of several higher risk populations, limited engagement of faculty, and extremely limited funding. Overall, while many of the campus efforts are helpful and demonstrate some progress, the “package of comprehensiveness” remains woefully insufficient for making the difference most of us want to see. A sensible approach includes traditional approaches of policies, education, curriculum, evaluation, and support services; it also embraces approaches from the first factor about motivation, thus addressing life skills, core needs, and wellness issues.
The third point is how we can translate these perspectives into something concrete. The challenge is one of changing the culture surrounding drugs and alcohol. I see this as vital for our work with individuals, as well as with groups (such as a fraternity or sorority, student government, or athletic team) and organizations (consider the campus as a whole). Regardless of the audience (individual, group, or organization), it is important to build upon best practices, learn from others’ experience, and use published findings and processes to guide our efforts. That would be a sensible approach.
One strategy I find particularly helpful is to have the audience think about legacies. First, ask, “What legacy do you want to leave?” Responses may be about contributions to society, accomplishments, community service, notoriety, impact, or something else. Second, ask, “What can be done that will be helpful for achieving, or increasing the likelihood to achieve, this legacy?” This focuses on action steps appropriate for today, as well as for the near and distant future. The third part directly relates to drugs and alcohol; ask, “How will decisions about the use or non-use of drugs and alcohol help achieve this legacy?” This can specify how marijuana use will be a help or a hindrance for achieving the goals, and why; it can address how non-use of alcohol, or legal and moderate use of alcohol, can be a help or hindrance, and why; and it can examine what policies, programs, and services will be helpful for achieving what is sought, and why.
Ultimately, these questions are incorporated with the aim of reducing the demand for using and misusing drugs and alcohol. This wellness orientation is proactive in nature – providing individuals with the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and more so they will be healthy and balanced in their lives. Individual and organizational needs and goals can thus be addressed through a positive, forward thinking approach encompassed with the emphasis upon legacy.
The questions now are:
- To what extent am I willing to commit myself to making a difference?
- What commitments will I make to my peers, students, parents of students, colleagues, affiliation groups, institution, profession, and society? Which of these are more immediate in nature, and which require a longer-term perspective?
- How will I face the obstacles and challenges that await, and overcome the feeling of being a lone voice? Where will I find support to do what I, genuinely, believe is necessary?
- How can I continue to learn, reframe the questions, and remain optimistic in this journey?
- How can I persuade others with my belief that virtually all of the problems and issues associated with drugs and alcohol are preventable?
If it’s really about “getting a good healthy buzz,” I think it’s important to focus on the healthy part, and move forward with our eyes wide open and our hearts engaged. That would be a sensible approach. And it will be worth every ounce of prevention we can offer.
David Anderson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, where he worked for over 28 years; he served as Professor and Director, Center for the Advancement of Public Health. Prior to that, he served as a college administrator at The Ohio State University, Radford University, and Ohio University. Over his four-decade career, he conducted hundreds of national, state, and local projects while teaching graduate and undergraduate classes. He is an active researcher, with decades-long research on college drug and alcohol issues, high school youth, and community efforts. His work emphasizes practical applications for youth and parents, school and community leaders, program planners, and policy makers.