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Tips for teachers in handling Substance Abuse

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines substance abuse as harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs. Psychoactive substance use can lead to dependence syndrome - a cluster of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use and that typically includes a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state.

Signs of Substance Abuse

There are different signs of drug abuse. In general, people who use drugs or alcohol typically display health issues; like, a neglected appearance, changes in behaviour and irregular sleeping patterns. They also make repeated requests for money.

Psychological signs of substance abuse

Physical signs

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Flushed skin
  • Track marks or abscesses
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Impaired speech or coordination
  • Unusual smell in breath or clothing
  • Inability to sleep
  • Poor hygiene

Behavioural signs

  • Inability to focus
  • Problems in school or with authority
  • Lying and deceiving
  • Mood swings and instability
  • Hyperactivity or lethargy
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Indifference to family or obligations
  • Unexplained guilt
  • Depression
  • Decline of self-esteem
  • Self-hatred, which may lead to self-mutilation

What Teachers Can Do?

Identifying students with drug use problem

It is important to be mindful of changes in young person’s behaviour due to factors other than drug use. Therefore, it is important for the teachers to remember the following:

  • Many observed behavioural changes which are recognised as signs and symptoms of drug use may be due to other causes and factors. It is important not to jump to conclusions without checking the facts first.
  • Drug use is not necessarily drug abuse. The proportion of adolescents who develop significant problems associated with drug use is relatively small compared with the total number of users.
  • Research has found that the strongest predictor of increased drug use is the effects of being labelled a ‘drug user’. In other words, drug use increases as a result of getting into trouble for initial drug use. A plausible reason for this can be that the drug user is often alienated from society by being labelled as ‘drug user’ and is no longer motivated to conform or belong to that society. The drug user has less opportunity to socialise with non-drug users as a result of alienation, and consequently increases involvement with drug using groups.

Drug misuse may have an impact on learning and participation in school. Teachers are usually the primary adults who participate in the life of children outside the family. They can readily identify atypical behaviour, and recognise when students are not learning and may be experiencing difficulties with other aspects of their lives.

Talking to young people about possible drug use

Issues of trust and confidentiality can arise when teachers discuss possible drug issues with young people. Teachers cannot guarantee confidentiality if matters are discussed that would oblige them to report their concerns about the welfare and safety of the young person to the principal. Teachers should discuss with the principal behaviours that need to be reported and the procedures for doing so. At the outset of any discussion, teachers should also advise students that there are limits to the help they can give and that they may need to refer the student for more specialised assistance. The student should be informed before further advice is sought.

Often the discussions on drug use are dominated by the adult, who lectures and questions a resentful and uncommunicative adolescent. The following guidelines are offered as a way of obtaining a clearer understanding of the situation and encouraging effective two way communication. Before approaching students, the teachers should:

  • Consider carefully the best person to approach the student. There may be another staff member, such as the school counsellor, who has good rapport with the student or who is more experienced in working with student problem behaviours.
  • Make sure that the young person is not intoxicated when you approach him or her, as he or she will not be able to respond appropriately or remember accurately what is discussed.
  • It may be advisable to check if other staff members are concerned about the student, while taking care not to divulge any confidential information.
  • Choose an appropriate time and place so that the student is not embarrassed in front of other students or teachers. Allow enough time for a full discussion, out of hearing range of others, and with minimal interruptions.

What can be done if the student is reluctant?

  • If the young person does not respond to overtures to discuss concerns about possible drug use, respect their right to privacy and do not try to force the issue as this may cut off future lines of communication.
  • Remain friendly and non-confrontational as pressuring the student may increase defensiveness and delay change. Offer information, such as pamphlets about drug facts, and support services.
  • Monitor the student’s progress and offer appropriate support in other relevant areas.

Providing support to Young people

Children may be reluctant to accept help or may feel that other problem areas in their life are more pressing than any specifically related to drug use. They must first recognise that they have a problem and then decide that they want to do something about it. School counsellors, social workers and teachers can help young people make such a decision by working with them in a non-judgmental and empathic manner.

Teachers and parents should communicate with each other. It is important to keep each another up to date about the child so that an overall and full picture is developed. Be aware of non-verbal communication. Teachers and parents should look for nonverbal cues such as avoiding eye contact, which may indicate guilt, or squirming/fidgeting, which may indicate fear. Teachers and parents should also be cognizant of their own non-verbal cues such as frowning to indicate disappointment or disapproval.

Ways of involving the School

role of schools

Source : Raising Happy children and providing safe childhoods - A Reader by Ministry of Women and Child Development



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