New Antidrug Program IDs Addictive Traits in Children
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New Antidrug Program IDs Addictive Traits in Children


Addictive Traits in ChildrenTom Cruise caught criminals before they committed crimes in the sci-fi movie Minority Report. It’s an enticing concept that’s equally entertaining and downright impossible. Yet, when it comes to recovery, it sounds like the future may already here. According to a recent New York Times story, there’s a new anti-drug program that can identify potential drug addicts at a remarkably early stage: when they’re children. Currently being tested in Europe, Canada and Australia, the program touts impressive results, claiming that its “personality testing can identify 90 percent of the highest risk children, targeting risky traits before they cause problems.” The program, called Preventure, is innovative, as it “recognizes how a child’s temperament drives his or her risk for drug use—and that different traits create different pathways to addiction.” The program zeroes in on those risky traits and starts working to undo them almost immediately. While the program’s directors concede that not every teenager who tries alcohol or drugs becomes an addict, the program focuses on the kids who will.

What Are The Traits?

Preventure singles out four primary traits that put children at the highest risk for addiction. The article’s writer, Maia Szalavitz, is quick to point out that those traits aren’t the usual suspects. “In my case, I seemed an unlikely candidate for addiction,” she observes. “I excelled academically, behaved well in class and participated in numerous extracurricular activities.” If you think those traits protect you from a life doomed to alcoholism and crippling addiction, you’re wrong. Addiction doesn’t know the class clown from the valedictorian. The program pinpoints “sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness” as the four traits that put kids at risk for future addiction problems.

Szalavitz is thankful that “more at-risk kids can be spotted early,” citing herself as a perfect example. The writer recounts being in preschool when she was “given a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), which increases illegal drug addiction risk by a factor of three.” She also notes that her inability to control emotions and being oversensitive did nothing but attract bullies which, naturally, led to isolation, then despair. From there, it’s a slippery slope that leads straight to drug abuse, but the root causes are there right from the beginning. If experts can spot the traits early enough, it can mean the difference between a fulfilling, sober life and one plagued by addiction.

How Does The Program Work?

Preventure kicks off “with an intensive two-to three-day training for teachers, who are given a crash course in therapy techniques proven to fight psychological problems,” the New York Times piece said. The training sessions set not only the foundation for the entire program, but the overall tone teachers should take with their students. The goal is to help teachers identify the risk factors and react appropriately, guiding students toward long-term success. At the beginning of the school year, middle schoolers take a personality test that weeds out anyone who doesn’t exhibit the four main traits that predispose them to drug addiction. “Months later, two 90-minute workshops—framed as a way to channel your personality toward success—are offered to the whole school, with only a limited number of slots,” the article reported. Students are purported to be chosen for individual workshops at random but, in actuality, schools do the opposite of leaving those things to chance. With a reported 90 percent success rate in identifying potential problems, Preventure pairs at-risk students with workshops “targeted to their most troublesome trait.” The workshops aren’t like other preventative treatment programs out there. They arm students with a wide range of tools to handle the emotional and behavioral problems unique to them, including how to manage anxiety, how to fight off social pressures, building self-esteem and improving their decision-making skills.

What Are the Results?

Preventure doesn’t simply meet a temporary need for helping young people avoid addiction—it fills a massive void in the global recovery landscape that’s never been successfully filled. The US, in particular, suffers from a lack of adequate prevention, treatment and recovery. “Children aren’t receiving drug prevention messages, and 90 percent of the youth suffering from a drug problem don’t receive the help they need,” the site Collective Evolution commented. “Federal funding for these programs is largely overlooked, despite the fact that, in 2014, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses, which was 1.5 times greater than those killed in car crashes.” Those sobering statistics underscore the amount of time and energy spent on the criminalization of drugs rather than the treatment and prevention of it. In her Times piece, Szalavitz recalls the ubiquitous anti-drug efforts of the 1980s, including the D.A.R.E. program and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. “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,” she said. Still, something would be better than the comparative nothing US students receive today.

That’s why Preventure’s results are both encouraging and eye-opening. The Times reported that “Preventure has been tested in eight randomized trials in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada, which found reductions in binge drinking, frequent drug use and alcohol-related problems.” Additionally, the article cites a 2013 study where roughly 1,500 “13- and 14-year-olds in 21 British schools” were entered into the program. The effect? “Among the high-risk kids who did attend, binge drinking fell by 43 percent,” the article said. What’s more is that very existence of Preventure yielded results—perhaps by positive peer pressure alone: the program reportedly “cut drinking…by 29 percent—even among those who didn’t attend workshops.” The article also cites studies from 2009 and 2013 showing that “Preventure reduced symptoms of depression, panic attacks and impulsive behavior.” One thing remains very clear when it comes to children and addiction: we can use today’s challenges to avoid an even more troubling tomorrow.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.