Photo by Erica Techo.
Drew Callner, at left, and Dalton Smith talk about their experiences with heroin addiction and give tips on how to approach conversations about addiction.
The way students learn about drugs and addiction is changing. Doomsday stories and scare tactics do not work anymore, so addiction experts now are focusing on stimulating more open conversation.
“Unfortunately the way we’ve done prevention in our industry up to this point has been really focused on telling kids, ‘Just don’t ever try it,’” said Sandor Cheka, executive director of the Addiction Prevention Coalition. “And what they see is a valedictorian smoke pot on the weekends and they’re still a valedictorian the next day.”
Cheka is among experts who are teaching students about drugs and addiction while at the same time trying to foster beneficial discussion.
“By encouraging our students to really engage their fellow classmates, it’s more relational,” Cheka said. “The evidence-based practices really point to the fact that if you get these kids in relational dialogues, you have much more of a chance of creating change.”
The Addiction Prevention Coalition has 17 student groups in the Birmingham area, including chapters at Hoover and Spain Park high schools, where students are encouraged to lead the conversation. Rather than use a set curriculum, Cheka said students are able to talk about the issues facing their peers.
J’La Jenkins has been a member of the Spain Park High School chapter for three years. She joined to try to help other students and is now chapter president.
“I feel like our group is for any and everybody,” she said. “We’re not just saying ‘Don’t do drugs.’ We want to help you through your transition or whatever issues you may be facing.”
Both of Jenkins’ grandfathers died as the result of addiction. Her paternal grandfather died from alcohol poisoning at 14, and her maternal grandfather died at 54 after struggling with drinking and smoking, she said.
“I really wanted to have that relationship with my grandfathers, and I never really got to have that. Those addictions took that away from me,” Jenkins said.
During chapter meetings, students are able to guide the conversations. They can discuss anything from peer pressure to addiction to coping with difficult schoolwork, Cheka said.
“It becomes a place where they find a safety net that they didn’t have before,” he said.
Peer-to-peer communication allows for more understanding, he said. “It’s not an adult saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ That’s what we go through and get tired of hearing. So if you have a peer, that’s somebody who can relate to you; that’s somebody who understands things, adolescent issues.”
As president of their chapter, Jenkins said she emphasizes for students to know themselves. If they are strong in their beliefs and stance against using drugs or alcohol, they’re less likely to find themselves in situations where someone is offering them a chance to use, she said. Peers have approached her, but she said that by staying strong in her response, they don’t ask as much.
Cheka said it’s important to realize that federal anti-drug curriculum might not fit every school. That curriculum takes years of research to create, and by the time it hits schools, any students surveyed for research have graduated, and the issues facing students likely have changed as well, he said.
“What one group of high schoolers faces is going to be completely different in the next four years,” Cheka said.
Dalton Smith, a former Spain Park High School student and recovering heroin addict, visits schools to share his experience with addiction. At 21 years old, Smith has been clean for two years, and he said he hopes students are able to learn from his mistakes.
“I talk to a lot of kids that are white collar kids, and they don’t think it’s [addiction] going to happen to them because their family has money or whatever … they want to believe,” Smith said. “This, what I call a disease, it doesn’t care.”
When Smith spoke at Spain Park, Jenkins said his story hit home for the audience.
“It really makes it real for us, that it’s possible to become addicted at the age of 17, 16, because a lot of the time I feel that young people, we don’t see it as an addiction until you’re losing everything,” Jenkins said.
Reaching Out is the final installment of a three-part series about heroin use and addiction in Hoover.