Working at a non-profit has its perks: occasional free food, a perpetual feel-good feeling, and today, the ability to attend an event that aligns with my current life experiment.
My non-profit hosted a youth substance abuse prevention summit for my community, and it was incredible. I’ve been to such summits before–in fact, I attended the inaugural summit for this same coalition a couple of years ago–and they all are interesting, but none have felt as personally relevant as the one I attended today.
As with all summits of its kind, the key community stakeholders were present: judges, academics, service providers, counselors, teachers, and the target audience — youth in recovery.
The summit kicked off with a presentation by a woman in recovery who developed an evidence-based program to prevent substance abuse among middle school and high school students. Unlike most evidence-based programs targeting this issue, which typically target a couple of high-risk behaviors (e.g., underage drinking, underage smoking, bullying), this one addresses 15 different risk behaviors and changes its curriculum regularly to address new or emerging issues as they arise in her community. As a program evaluator, I was delighted to see the success of the program and the thought that went into its design — and, as someone who is two weeks sober and going strong (woot!) — I found the list of high-risk topics really striking. The goal of eliminating or reducing substance abuse among youth is all well-and-good, but these are systemic issues we’re dealing with here. Come from a fragile family? You’re more likely to drink. Have peers who drink? You’re more likely to drink. Dealing with sexual violence or bullying? You’re more likely to drink. Watch shows that glorify and normalize our drinking culture? You’re more likely to drink. And these issues are all the more salient to youth, who are struggling to establish their identities while simultaneously striving to fit in with their peers.
The keynote presentation was followed by a panel of youth, all of whom had histories of substance abuse of various kinds, and all of whom are now in recovery. I was so inspired by their personal journeys, and I could have listened to them for hours. What resonated for me, in particular, was their emphasis on cultivating alternative peer groups (i.e., groups of individuals who intentionally avoid drinking or using, and who hold one another accountable), and their dismissal of traditional approaches to deterring drinking or doing drugs. One girl, in particular, eloquently described how she always found the “This is your brain on drugs” videos to be a joke. She later commented on how youth who are in recovery avoid using the term “sober,” because the word “sobriety” isn’t cool.
And it made me think.
You know the “It Gets Better” project started by Dan Savage? Briefly, it’s a viral video campaign on YouTube, where people who identify as being gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/what-have-you share their coming out stories and reassure youth who similarly identify that life gets easier with time. Why is there not a similar campaign for youth in recovery?
Why is there not a new type of PSA — one that doesn’t play up the drama of extreme drug/alcohol use (with people losing their teeth, being covered in scabs, dying in a gutter, or driving into a tree), but instead illustrates that people who use, or people in recovery, are just like everyone else? That if you lined up someone who is in recovery, someone who is actively dealing with substance abuse issues, and someone who engages in healthy drinking behaviors, you often wouldn’t be able to tell them apart? Or that highlights the fact that people who are currently in recovery are able to have just as much fun as people who are able to drink responsibly? Why the fuck is sobriety stigmatized?
It’s time to #rebrandsobriety.