Opinion: The kids are alright… but only when we empower them

Opinion: The kids are alright… but only when we empower them

“What I’ve learned over the years talking to hundreds of teens is that what they want – and need – are honest conversations about drugs.”

I’ve spent the past two weeks giving talks at schools across the Lower Mainland. It’s one of the best things about my job: being able to connect with kids and talk to them about drugs.

What I’ve learned over the years talking to hundreds of teens is that what they want – and need – are honest conversations about drugs. Their friends experiment with drugs, their parents probably do drugs, and they watch on the news every day as the devastating and frightening overdose crisis. Doing anything but telling them the truth about drugs would be pointless at best, and murderous at worst.

However, what they are having is often the opposite of those conversations. Instead, the messages they hear about drugs stigmatize drug use, passing the shame on to the younger generation. They are told that drug use equals addiction when the truth is that not all people who use substances develop a substance use disorder or any problem at all.

The way we talk about drugs and their use plays a huge role in why people avoid communication. The language we use about drug use and the issues that drive drug use means that young people are left to deal with it alone and in isolation.

Children today are much smarter than many adults give them credit for

This has been reminded over the past two weeks by speaking and listening to young people in schools. I shared with them my experiences with substance abuse, addiction and crime, and how harm reduction and recovery work in tandem to help me piece my life together. I told them how drugs filled a void for me, helped me manage anxiety and trauma, and that drugs gave me what the adults around me couldn’t or didn’t want—an escape from the emotional pain I was living with.

What I heard from them really opened my eyes. Kids today deal with many issues and complexities, and they are smarter than many adults give them credit for. They told me how they needed to hear how to deal with these complications, and that includes complications with drug use.

I’ve heard how young people are already affected by the way society views drug use and harm reduction. They are already dealing with stigma and shame and are not talking about the issue because they are embarrassed. How are kids supposed to feel comfortable asking for help when they know they’ve already been judged?

Society loves to blame and shame people who use drugs. But the truth is, the majority of us are substance users. Remind the students that almost everyone around them is a material user. If someone uses caffeine (including coffee and energy drinks), alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, or sugar, they are a substance abuser. We shouldn’t judge when we don’t know the whole story.

Why we need to be honest about drugs with teens right now

A student came up to me after a conversation and thanked me for saying that drug users aren’t bad people. “My dad died of an overdose in 2020 and I don’t tell people about it. He wasn’t a bad person, he was my dad and he loved me.” My heart broke.

Another student told me about her estranged drug addict mother. She thought her mother chose drugs over her. She was always saying that by others. I told her I was sure there wasn’t a day that went by that her mother wouldn’t love her. Addiction is rooted in trauma and stigma, and that shame causes generational trauma.

I learned through these conversations that stigma starts early, which means they don’t come into contact with it later. This is why we need to be honest with them now. Talk to children about mental health, medications, and medications. Talk to them about harm reduction and drug verification. Talk to them about what is in the drug supply.

Just don’t tell them to “just say no”. They are too smart for this and cause harm to future generations. Instead of imparting these ancient lessons of shame, we should be sharing messages of healing.

Jay Felicella is a clinical counselor for peers at the British Columbia Center on Substance Abuse. Follow him on Twitter at @employee

#Opinion #kids #alright #empower

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