The conversation we need to have about drugs and alcohol

Experimentation with drugs and alcohol is part of the lives of many young people, and it seems that the age of initiation is becoming younger and younger.

Talking to our teenagers about drug and alcohol abuse must be an ongoing conversation – not a one-off event, especially as our children are now being drawn to a whole new range of very concerning substances, and peer pressure can be overwhelming. Schools, parents and other community members all play a role in educating our young people about drug and alcohol use and we all need to remind our children that drug taking is not the norm.

Teenagers and high-risk behaviours

Given the recent deaths at music festivals and the subsequent controversy around pill testing, last week’s SBS Insight program was devoted to this issue. The episode focused heavily on MDMA (Ecstasy) and the “perfect storm” of the availability of very high strength tablets or capsules coupled with the high summer temperatures as potentially the lethal combination that may have led to these deaths. The teenagers who were interviewed on the program all had the attitude that ‘it will not happen to (them)’, with the reward of a great time seen to outweigh the risk.  All felt that they would be safe if they bought their drugs from a ‘reputable’ source, often seeking the advice of older users regarding the ‘strength’ of pills.  None really appreciated that these drugs are often bulked up with a host of other chemicals when key drugs are in short supply.  While spectrometers can be used to test for MDMA, Cocaine, Speed and Ketamine etc., there are now some 740 synthetics that have been reported to be used as additives.

Our children are at risk of being drawn into this culture and we as a community need to pull together to help our students make the right decisions. Leading Drug and Alcohol researcher, Paul Dillon has the following messages for our young people regarding MDMA:

  • MDMA can cause harm and has caused deaths;
  • Deaths can be related to drug adulteration;
  • MDMA is not a ‘safe’ drug and can cause harm, including death;
  • Some people appear to be predisposed to ecstasy-related harm, even after taking relatively small amounts of the drug; and
  • All young people, whether they choose to use ecstasy or not, need basic information on what to do in a drug-related emergency. This should include the importance of seeking help early, calling 000, teaching the recovery position and ensuring that they are aware that police do not routinely come to an illicit drug medical emergency.

“…the part of the brain involved in learning and memory is particularly affected.”

Other disturbing reports that have come to us are associated with the rise in the consumption of spirits by our teenagers. Due to the higher alcohol content of spirits, alcohol poisoning is a very real possibility and clearly, the greater the alcohol content has the potential to lead to greater damage to the adolescent brain at a time when critical neural development is occurring.  The hippocampus – the part of the brain involved in learning and memory – is particularly affected. Paul Dillon also points out that sprits are likely to increase the risk of liver damage, particularly for younger women.

To add to our concerns, we now have reports of e-cigarette use by our students. Vaping seems to be on the rise generally in the wider community, with many young people believing that these are a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. This is a very unregulated area. Some do contain nicotine, and nicotine is addictive and toxic. Vaping may be ‘safer’ than smoking, but that does not mean it is safe.

Many students also do not appreciate that drugs are retained in the body for considerably longer than they anticipate. Amphetamines and cocaine can take two to four days to leave the body; MDMA, two to five days; for occasional cannabis users, one to five days; however, for regular cannabis users, the drug can take up to six weeks to fully leave the body. This has mobile drug testing implications for students on their Learner and/or Provisional driving licences.

Given the illegal nature of these drugs, students also need to appreciate that there are legal consequences for their actions, which could have far reaching impacts on their future lives.

What we’re doing to keep our students safe

The College is taking this issue seriously. Our Heads of Junior and Senior Wellbeing have joined a consortium of leaders from other Independent Schools in the Eastern Suburbs who are determined to take action, as this is definitely not a Moriah specific problem.

  • The first key initiative from this network is a Parent Information Evening ‘Afterthebell’ which will occur later this term. A full program will be published as soon as this is finalised. We hope that details will be available for the next newsletter. The evening is designed to specifically tackle the emerging issues in the Eastern Suburbs.  Tickets will soon be available online and we would encourage as many Moriah parents to be there as is possible;
  • Yasmin London, Executive Director of ySafe will also be spending time with our students here on campus. She will be leading discussions about Cyber issues with sessions targeting students in Years 7 & 8, 9 & 10, and 11 & 12 during Student Life periods;
  • Later this term, Year 10 – 12 students will hear a presentation from renowned speaker, Wayne Warburton on the theme of addictions; and
  • We plan to hold Parent Focus Groups for Year 8 parents as we believe this to be a particularly vulnerable time for our students;
  • In Term Two, the College will be hosting Dr Michael Carr Gregg, one of Australia’s highest profile psychologists who specialises in adolescent behaviour; and
  • We hope to conclude the term with a TedX style event for Parents and Students, again focusing upon the key issues facing our adolescents today.

We’re committed to building productive and positive partnerships with parents and other community members and creating the conversations that address wellbeing issues together, including drug and alcohol education. I encourage you to attend the parent evenings and speak to one of our team of Psychologists or your child’s Head of House if you would like advice or support.   

About the Author
Jan Hart is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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