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'Fear-based' substance-use education is failing — does this B.C. nurse have an answer?

A nurse and researcher at the University of British Columbia says outdated substance-abuse education has been found to rely on marketing and ideological approaches instead of evidence.
A new UBC program aims to help change substance-abuse education in B.C.

Fear-based substance-use education is leaving children without the information and supports they need to avoid the most devastating effects of drugs and alcohol, according to a B.C. nurse and researcher.

Emily Jenkins, a registered nurse and associate professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia, said outdated and abstinence-oriented approaches that rely on fear still exist, even though they are a bad match for the realities young people are facing today.

“Continuing with these approaches will cause substantial harm,” Jenkins said. “We need only look at the current toxic drug crisis...”

Jenkins, who founded Wellstream: The Canadian Centre for Innovation in Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use, says the organization aims to alter outdated approaches. The group works with educational professionals to create and share national standards. That's meant to help teachers and school administrators do their jobs efficiently, effectively and in line with scientific evidence.

Jenkins said most educators want clear and consistent guidance and resources supported by the decades of available evidence showing what does and doesn’t work.

“They need solutions that are age- and context-appropriate and can be delivered in a K-12 setting,” she said.

Jenkins cited one recent study, which using a sample of schools in Ontario and found evidence the K-12 school sector lacks clear, evidence-based guidance for substance use education and intervention. That has led to a wide variety of approaches both within and between schools. Most school programs were chosen based on popular belief and marketing rather than evidence-based studies, the authors concluded.

“This inconsistency contributes to troubling inequities,” Jenkins said. “For instance, many schools offer no substance use programming beyond curriculum content. Many others use ineffective models that can be harmful.”

The nurse and researcher says her organization is looking to turn such stories around by targeting four key areas.

First, Wellstream is working to develop national standards for substance use education and intervention in the K-12 school system. That will include collaborating with other researchers to review evidence, policy and public opinion around how to prevent the use of substances in schools.

Next, Jenkins says the group will offer easy-to-access, easy-to-use, and low-cost resources that will help educators make decisions that are aligned with scientific evidence.

Wellstream will then work with schools to design and implement the changes, and then monitor and refine the program as they see results. 

“We’re working to make a difference to the nearly six million children and youth enrolled in Canadian schools, along with the more than three-quarters of a million educational professionals supporting their healthy development,” Jenkins said. 

“This is where we must concentrate our efforts.”