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We’re failing kids in drug education. How can we fix it?

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Last week at an open and lush Midtown East coffee shop, I met a stranger, a chance Twitter connection. This well-dressed, petite, dark-haired woman somehow recognized me when I was still half a block away, her clasped hands in front of her glimpsing into a wave. “I knew it was you,” she began warmly. Then, over black iced coffee, she told me everything. Alone in the cafe, this unexpected newfound friend, Robin, told me about drugs and her daughter.

Four years ago she lost her only child, Zoe, to drug overdose. Zoe, a vibrant, beautiful 22-year-old college student, born and raised in New York who preferred West side to East. A young woman who fatally overdosed before entering treatment.


Zoe Kellner, age 21

Read Zoe’s story, narrated by her mom. It took everything I had not to cry as her brave mother described the most tragic event of her life.

Today, August 31, is Overdose Awareness Day. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, to think it’s some other person or family, substance abuse and addiction hit us all. Similar to a plane accident, the conventional wisdom goes, “well, that won’t happen.” Well, yes, it could. It could happen to any of us. Zoe’s mom learned that:

I want to start the story when my daughter Zoe was in the 9th grade at a wonderful school in New York City. It is a lovely, nurturing, very sweet school, small, like a family, a community. She started in the first grade and went all the way through high school and graduated from there.

But in the 9th grade something happened that I can’t help thinking back to now.

One of Zoe’s classmates was very suddenly removed from school and sent out west to rehab. The next day, the school called a parent breakfast, because the kids were buzzing about what happened, and the parents didn’t really understand.

As I sat at this breakfast, and they explained what had happened to this young man, who was a good friend of Zoe’s, I thought to myself, “What am I doing here? This has nothing to do with me, because it’s so not Zoe.”

Fast forward. This young boy – now a young man — lives out in California, has a band, owns part of a restaurant, is smart and handsome and successful and thriving. Zoe is gone.

As parents, we don’t want to think our kids could get off track. In a million years, I never thought that I would be the parent who would lose a child to drugs. I never, ever, ever thought that could happen.

Robin now speaks at Zoe’s independent K-12 school in NYC about drug use, telling students about one of their peers: her daughter. As we talked, a common thread again and again was a disconnect we both find in the education system.

Everyone has dabbled in drugs, just as future generations of kids will dabble. The trick is to get them to do so as safely as possible, to instinctively watch for warning signs of abuse in themselves and each other: sex ed for drugs if you will. You can’t teach kids abstinence or realistically think they’ll never try drugs, but you can teach them about the risks. What does drug dependence look like? What does a dangerous party or club scene look like?

A Start? Hope for Better Education?

The Partnership at recently launched a “You are Not Alone” initiative on drug addiction and substance abuse, inviting addicts and their loved ones to share their stories on YouTube and on the Partnership website. To me, this is pretty exciting and inspiring. Instead of saying “don’t do drugs,” they’re trying to break the stigma and debunk common drug abuse myths and stereotypes.

Sharing stories seems like a avant garde method of talking about drug use, as is talking to younger kids, such as the target audience of the ad below. While silly, the cartoon makes some good points and highlights health risks of household medicine abuse. And what’s too young to be talking about it?

I also like this “Check Yourself” campaign, going back to the idea of touting drug abuse and dependence warning signs.

Next Steps

I’m working with Robin to build material for drug presentations and education in Zoe’s school. What are your ideas? Have you seen a novel or interesting drug campaign, locally or on a national scale? How would you get this message of addiction and abuse to teens and younger kids?

Now I talk to other kids about Zoe. She would want kids to know what really happens. Not what you think is going happen, but what the real deal is here. This is what happens.

I try to tell kids all of this with the hope that maybe one day, one of them will be in a position like Zoe was when she was in college, and maybe she’ll think just for a minute about my beautiful young daughter who only got to 22 when she died. And maybe my telling Zoe’s story will save a life.

Follow Zoe’s Story on Twitter.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. cccampbell38 3:50 pm 09/1/2011

    I am a retired addictions counselor. I began my own recovery from addiction 42 years ago. In the intervening years I have worked extensively in prevention/education as well as in treatment; mostly with teen agers.
    I cannot possibly tell you how many approches to both areas I have been involved with but I can tell you this: I do not know how to prevent kids from experimenting with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. I do know that a small number of those who experiment will progress on to addiction. I do not know how to predict who. I do not know how to “cure” them. Some will recover; most will not. My efforts may or may not be effective. I have no way of knowing. The idea of sharing stories is not exactly new. AA was doing that 75 years ago and most 12 step programs continue that today. For many years I ran a prevention program where teens and adults gathered for an intensive weekend of education and sharing stories. I think that we really helped some. Some are no longer alive.

    After all of these years of education and experience I think that I have come to realize that I know less about prevention and treatment than I did when I started.

    No, I do not think that it is hopeless and Yes, I support any and all efforts to turn things around. It’s just that today I believe that we need to learn far more about the human mind and how it works before we can become truly successful in reducing this tragedy. We still have a long way to go.

    Link to this
  2. 2. diggypop 5:08 pm 09/4/2011

    The Partnership at recently launched a “You are Not Alone” initiative on drug addiction and substance abuse, inviting addicts and their loved ones to share their stories on YouTube and on the Partnership website. To me, this is pretty exciting and inspiring. Instead of saying “don’t do drugs,” they’re trying to break the stigma and debunk common drug abuse myths and stereotypes.>>>

    I can guarantee you that’s not what they’re doing. They never heard a lie about marijuana that they didn’t repeat, or a scare tactic they weren’t willing to try. They’re the ones who tried to claim kids buying pot were supporting terrorists, and that it turned kids into rapists. They may be trying the “soft approach” for now, but the goal is the same: prohibition and forced rehabilitation for anyone engaging in forbidden substances.

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  3. 3. djmchop 2:05 pm 09/5/2011

    This post rang true on too many levels. I think education, or at least acknowledgment that drugs exist, within the household is an important first step.

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  4. 4. gmperkins 10:13 pm 09/7/2011

    I concur with what cccampell38 wrote.

    I find kids and teens are constantly warned, yet some percentage will try drugs and out of that percentage some become addicted.

    I have know great parents who did everything to save their kids but failed. It was not their fault, addiction is a problem inside the wiring of the brain. Like a heart condition at birth, sometimes you can fix the problem but sometimes you can’t, can only manage with varying success. The brain being so complex… usually you can’t…

    The most hopeful thing I have seen lately is that SciAm article on a nicotine vaccination. I don’t consider that ideal but for those that want to quit but whose brains won’t let them, it is an answer that will hopefully help alot in a few years. If these eventually exist for cocaine and other life destroying drugs…

    Its a very, very difficult problem. But I do know that parents, family and friends can help those on the fringe, just not all of them.

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