Dr Nicola Newtown and Dr Lexine Stapinski present on the prevention of substance use related harms among young people. Dr Stapinski explains that this is important for several reasons, particularly because the typical age of onset for a substance use disorder occurs during this time, and for young people between the ages of 15-24, alcohol and drug use contribute to the top three causes of death. In addition, early initiation is associated with various negative outcomes, such as a lower likelihood of finishing school and an increased chance of experiencing related problems later in life. Adolescence is also a critical period for brain growth and maturation and evidence suggests that using drugs and alcohol during this time can interfere with normal brain development.
Dr Newton discusses how the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse should occur early, and schools are the ideal location for this. Many programs focus on preventing alcohol use, and therefore less is known about prevention approaches targeting illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine. Best practise for effective prevention adopts a social influence approach, i.e. one that focuses on the facts and the potential harms of drug use, and builds the skills of young people in resisting use. The incorporation of normative education is also important, i.e. actively challenging untrue yet commonly held notions such as ‘everyone is doing it’. Dr Newtown explains that effective prevention programs do exist, however the dissemination of evidence-based programs is low and this leads to poor outcomes. The Climate Schools program was developed to address the barriers and obstacles to effective implementation. The programs adopt a social influence, harm-minimisation approach to prevent the use of alcohol, cannabis and psychostimulants among adolescents. The programs are internet-based, easy to implement and portray interactive cartoon style scenarios that students can relate to. Dr Newtown outlines the effectiveness of the programs in reducing drug use and increasing student wellbeing has been demonstrated in multiple RCTs with results published in 16 papers.
To better assist school communities in accessing evidence-based programs and improve dissemination of reliable information and resources, the Positive Choices online portal was developed. The portal is a one-stop drug-education directory that was developed for and in consultation with students, parents and teachers. Young people, parents and teachers/workers can find resources which meet their specific needs, and plan lessons online with links to the Australian curriculum. The portal can be accessed by anyone and is updated as new resources (i.e. videos, apps, factsheets) are made available. The next step, Dr Stapinski says, is the development of an online toolkit that will improve access to evidence-based information specifically related to methamphetamine, not just for schools but also for the wider community.