“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work

just say "no"

“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why and What to Do Instead.

The “Just Say No” campaign took off in the 1980s, popularized by the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. It’s been a prevailing voice in drug prevention ever since, especially when drug programs are aimed at children and teenagers. However, our growing opioid crisis makes it quite clear that this mode of thinking about addiction and drug use simply does not work.

On the surface, the premise of “Just Say No” and other similar campaigns seems both straightforward and appealing. It is, after all, a simple answer to the problem of drugs addiction: Don’t start doing them in the first place and you won’t have an issue. Unfortunately for the millions of people struggling with opioid addiction across the country, the solution is not that simple.

How Drug Prevention Programs Fail Youth

The best-known and most popular addiction prevention program in the country is D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education. These programs, generally provided by police offers who visit schools on a regular basis to provide education about the risks and effects of various drugs. The program has been implemented in as much as 75 percent of the nation’s school districts, and it’s still largely synonymous with drug education in America even though a bulk of evidence suggests that the program simply does not work.

Part of the problem with D.A.R.E. and related programs is it can make it seem like everyone in a person’s peer group is doing drugs. By making drug use seem more common than it generally is among young people, the take-away message for many teens is that drug abstinence would make them social pariahs.

Another problem is that many people do not enter the path to addiction in the way the drug prevention programs may have led them to believe would happen. For many Americans with substance abuse problems, their first introduction to drugs was in a doctor’s office, not a party. Prescription drug addiction frequently begins with legal, valid prescriptions. When drugs are prescribed in larger quantities than are necessary or for conditions that do not require that strength of drug, substance abuse can start. Other factors, such as an individual’s emotional and socioeconomic circumstances, can lead this recreational painkiller usage toward the path of addiction.

Finally, drug prevention problems cannot help with the millions of people already suffering from addiction. For people already caught in the grip of substance dependency, the advice to “Just Say No” comes insultingly late. The solution to the nation’s opioid crisis is a combination of compassionate addiction treatment and prevention methods that have been proven to be more effective.

What Actually Helps People Avoid Drug Dependency?

Researchers have found that the most effective drug prevention programs for young people are those that focus on building social skills for handling peer pressure, providing plenty of one-on-one interaction with fellow students and the instructor. They also emphasize that drug usage, while serious, is not especially common, alleviating the unspoken social pressures of D.A.R.E.-like programs.

For the upcoming generation of young people who have not yet developed drug problems, these programs are a step in the right direction. The solution to our current opioid crisis, however, is multi-faceted and will require many steps beyond prevention.

Establishing addiction treatment programs that recognize the individualized needs of addicts is the first step. A compassionate and understanding approach to addiction, recognizing that people who struggle with substance abuse frequently have additional problems in their lives that must be overcome before addiction can be treated, is essential. Approaching the prescription drug problem from a systemic perspective, looking at ways the pharmaceutical industry itself may be contributing to the problem, is also a crucial step.

Not everyone who uses drugs becomes an addict; by identifying the factors that lead casual drug users down the path of addiction, important work can be done in preventing drug dependency. By taking this multi-faceted approach to drug abuse prevention and treatment, progress may at last be made on the nation’s drug epidemic.

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Jason Bordonaro

I am licensed by the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners as an LPC and LISAC and am a National Certified Counselor with the NBCC. I am currently the clinical director at Springboard Recovery for outpatient treatment of substance use disorders. I am trained in EMDR therapy and hold a Master Level Certification in Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). I am registered with the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners to provide supervision for interns and associate level counselors.