From The New York Times ByDrug education is the only part of the middle school curriculum I remember — perhaps because it backfired so spectacularly. Before reaching today’s legal drinking age, I was shooting cocaine and heroin.
I’ve since recovered from my addiction, and researchers now are trying to develop innovative prevention programs to help children at risk take a different road than I did.
Developing a public antidrug program that really works has not been easy. Many of us grew up with antidrug programs like D.A.R.E. or the Nancy Reagan-inspired antidrug campaign “Just Say No.” But research shows those programs and others like them that depend on education and scare tactics were largely ineffective and did little to curb drug use by children at highest risk.
But now a new antidrug program tested in Europe, Australia and Canada is showing promise. Called Preventure, the program, developed by Patricia Conrod, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, recognizes how a child’s temperament drives his or her risk for drug use — and that different traits create different pathways to addiction.
Early trials show that personality testing can identify 90 percent of the highest risk children, targeting risky traits before they cause problems.
Recognizing that most teenagers who try alcohol, cocaine, opioids or methamphetamine do not become addicted, they focus on what’s different about the minority who do.
The traits that put kids at the highest risk for addiction aren’t all what you might expect. In my case, I seemed an unlikely candidate for addiction. I excelled academically, behaved well in class and participated in numerous extracurricular activities.
Inside, though, I was suffering from loneliness, anxiety and sensory overload. The same traits that made me “gifted” in academics left me clueless with people.
That’s why, when my health teacher said that peer pressure could push you to take drugs, what I heard instead was: “Drugs will make you cool.” As someone who felt like an outcast, this made psychoactive substances catnip.
Preventure’s personality testing programs go deeper. They focus on four risky traits:
- anxiety sensitivity
Importantly, most at-risk kids can be spotted early. For example, in preschool I was given a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), which increases illegal drug addiction risk by a factor of three. My difficulty regulating emotions and oversensitivity attracted bullies. Then, isolation led to despair.
A child who begins using drugs out of a sense of hopelessness — like me, for instance — has a quite different goal than one who seeks thrills.
Three of the four personality traits identified by Preventure are linked to mental health issues, a critical risk factor for addiction. Impulsiveness, for instance, is common among people with A.D.H.D., while hopelessness is often a precursor to depression. Anxiety sensitivity, which means being overly aware and frightened of physical signs of anxiety, is linked to panic disorder.