Why harm reduction needs to be part of drug education for children
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs has done everything any responsible parent should do to help her child navigate the confusing landscape of teenage drugs and alcohol. She maintained a safe space for her son Daniel to talk about his thoughts and feelings regarding the increasingly common drug situations and even participated in a six-week course to ‘protect’ your children. .
And yet, the worst possible outcome occurred when 16-year-old Daniel died after taking stronger-than-usual MDMA at a rave. Daniel’s tragic story is incredibly rare. Although there are inherent risks in illicit drug use, dying or becoming addicted is anomalous. But there is a wide range of harm that can occur in between, especially when drug education may seem like little more than an afterthought in the national personal, social, health education curriculum. and economic (PSHE). That’s why Fiona wrote the book ‘I Wish I’d Known’ and started the drug education charity Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation: to help young people make safe choices about drugs and drugs. alcohol and harm reduction, as well as providing drug education. and resources for parents and teachers.
“Dan’s was the worst case scenario,” Spargo-Mabbs says. “But drugs don’t have to hurt anyone. But you need to have the understanding and skills to be able to face these choices safely and understand what it means.
And right now, high school students aren’t equipped with that information.
Hannah Dawes, a PSHE and religious studies teacher in Bath, sees a disparity between the gender and relationship materials made available to teachers compared to educating their students about drugs which she describes as impoverished.
“Why hasn’t the government given more guidance to teachers on this,” Dawes asks? “It literally says about orientation, drug and alcohol education; it really doesn’t give teachers much detail about what they are supposed to teach. I still think most of the time we teach abstinence.
“My message tends to be that the safest way is not to use drugs,” she says, “but we know people do. So let’s talk about meaningful ways to reduce damage. I’ve noticed since I started teaching PSHE that kids are so interested, they want the facts, so they can make informed choices, whether they’re at a party and someone offers them MDMA , they know the associated risks.
In its recent policy document “From Harm To Hope a 10 Year Drugs Plan to Cut Crime and Save Lives”, the government makes noise about harm reduction (a set of strategies and practical ideas aimed at reducing the consequences negative effects associated with drug use) in adult populations. However, the integration of this approach into anti-drug education of adolescents is a rather controversial subject.
“Harm reduction is tricky in a universal framework,” says Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, who acknowledges that it took a long time to understand the merits of teaching harm reduction after her son’s death. “You have to be careful how you frame it, so that you’re not normalizing drug use, but also giving young people the tools they need. So it’s difficult. But as part of a preventive approach to drug education, harm reduction has to be part of it, but it has to be age-appropriate.
As a teacher herself, Hannah Dawes also recognizes the challenges.
“I think it’s difficult because harm reduction approaches aren’t foolproof,” she says. “There is something uncomfortable about teaching harm reduction. So I think it’s important for teachers to understand that it’s not an easy thing to do.
With that in mind, Hannah created Join the Exchange, which includes a series of drug education videos, including an episode on harm reduction, as well as a collaboration with Drug Science to produce drug education resources in secondary schools for teachers.
“I’m in a position where I say, can we please start talking about this? I am a teacher. I do that. It’s not as bad as you think. And talking about these things doesn’t make more kids use drugs.
But what does the evidence say?
While a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Unit found that among college-aged students, “a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use may cause more harm than it warns,” and goes on to “prioritize prevention of drug harm over prevention of drug use,” data on school-aged students is rather sparse. What is clear is that teaching the “just say no” message along with purely knowledge-based content that does not involve critical thinking and developing skills to make safer choices is not not an effective approach to substance abuse prevention in adolescents.
Spargo-Mabbs, who recently spoke on a panel on what evidence-based drug education looks like at the UK Government’s Drug Summit in May, still feels a rather lonely voice when it comes to advocating for the harm reduction message in drug education to policy makers.
“The conversation is always very present, what do we do with the crime? What about addiction? What do we do with drug-related deaths? Rather than saying, what do we do to get in before all of this happens, and try to give people choices and equip them to make choices that might avoid all of this.
“The headlines are always around people taking away their passports and banning them from football games… We’re not going to stop the volume of drug use that the government wants to tackle without getting in before they have thirties… Your average teenager, from your average family, they absolutely need to have some really decent drug education now more than ever, because drugs are now present in a way that they just never were it used to be. It’s frustrating that it seems so obvious that education has to be part of prevention. Prevention shouldn’t be about stopping people from getting drugs when they are already consuming.
Mary Biles is a plant medicine advocate, author of The CBD Book, medical cannabis writer and podcast host who enjoys uncovering the science behind herbal medicines and psychedelics. Tweets @Mary_Biles