Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Prevalence and Pedagogy: Understanding Substance Abuse in Schools

Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

Prevalence and Pedagogy: Understanding Substance Abuse in Schools

Article excerpt


This case study examines not only the prevalence of substance abuse in one rural Canadian high school but also how teachers understand teaching and learning in relation to substance abuse. Over one third of students reported that they had used marijuana (37%) and alcohol (38%) in the last seven days, a rate considerably higher than typical Canadian averages. Pedagogical implications were informed by three main themes that emerged from staff interviews. Several teachers normalized substance abuse in adolescence, others coped silently "'under the radar," and a few called for specialized support from other human services. Further, in-school approaches require that the entire staff be involved to enhance awareness of substance abuse, interprofessional collaboration, and a sense of interdependence.


While excessive alcohol consumption and the use of illicit drugs by youth is problematic across North America (Healthy People, 2000 & Health Canada, 2008), international comparisons of alcohol and cannabis use by young people indicate that Canada ranks among the leading countries for rates of prevalence and frequency (CCSA, 2007). It well known that prevalence and patterns of substance abuse vary among regions and even within communities, however, evidence suggests that adolescents are the most likely to use substances, engage in risky behaviors, and experience harm as a result (CCSA, 2007). Additionally, not all youth are subject to equal risk, as some minority populations that experience greater poverty, trauma, and cultural alienation account for a disproportional number of individuals who abuse alcohol and other substances (Sharma, 2008 & CCSA, 2007). Further, assessing risk is a problem; "most adolescent instruments are still in the development stages, and their effectiveness for problem identification diagnosis and treatment planning is largely unknown" (Heister and Miller, 1995, p. 65).

The vast majority of schools use various classroom-based drug abuse prevention strategies and curricula as an approach to curb drug abuse and its adverse consequences and to deter early-stage drug use (Birkeland, Murphy-Graham & Weiss, 2005; Hecht, Graham & Elek, 2006); however, much less is known about how teachers understand substance abuse issues within their schools. Moreover, since there is widespread support for the effects of social context on adolescent substance abuse, understanding the role of the school as one organization within the community network influencing young people is paramount.

Davis (2007) reports that schools do not have the time or the resources to adequately address issues related to substance abuse; consequently, the impact of school curricula and other efforts to prevent adolescent alcohol abuse have been less successful than desired (Bauman, Foshee, Ennett, Hicks & Pemberton, 2001). While popular programs such as D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) appear to have no lasting influence on adolescent use of substances (Vincus, Ringwalt, Harris & Shamblen, 2010; Pan & Bai, 2009; West & O'Neal, 2004), there is evidence that there are other psychosocial benefits to D.A.R.E including building relationships with community members (Birkeland, Murphy-Graham & Weiss, 2005), enhancing self-esteem, and institutional bonding (Lucas, 2008). Additionally, many scholars believe that the school context provides a unique environment for not only prevention curricula (Sloboda, Pyakuryal, Stephens, Teasdale, Forrest, Stephens, & Grey, 2008) but also for acting as a crucial partner in successful addiction treatment and rehabilitation (CCSA, 2007).

Although there is some evidence that teachers perceive substance abuse as increasingly common, having an impact on academic performance, and causing behaviors such as withdrawal, truancy, reduced ability to concentrate and absenteeism (Van Hout & Connor, 2008), few studies have specifically examined addictive behaviors in a school context and have asked teachers about substance abuse in school (Finn & Willert, 2006). …

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