How Substance Abuse Counseling Found Its Way Into Schools

Last updated: April 2020

When it comes to substance abuse counseling, perhaps one of the most profound impacts is with school-aged children. Adolescents and teens are particularly vulnerable to drug abuse and it’s become evident that substance abuse counseling in schools is vital to protecting and educating this age group about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, as well as providing prevention and intervention services.

Substance Abuse in Children and Adolescents

According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and conducted by the University of Michigan, 2016 saw a decline in overall drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, and except for marijuana, drug use is at an all time low since the survey was started in 1975.

Even though the prevalence of drug use is dropping among students, it is still as important as ever to address substance abuse issues. Here’s why:

  • Marijuana: For both 8th and 10th graders, marijuana usage has declined over the last few years, but 12th graders remained the same with one in 16 reporting daily use. The highest usage was seen in states that have medicinal marijuana laws. High school seniors are smoking marijuana more than cigarettes.
  • Alcohol: Although alcohol use among 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students has been steadily declining over the last 20 years, 22.8 percent of 8th graders still report having tried alcohol. While down from its high of 55.8 percent, more than one out of five students has tried drinking before they’ve even started high school.
  • Nicotine: Nicotine has been on a significant decline for the last five years, and in 2016, only 4.8 percent of seniors smoke daily, compared to 24.6 percent in 1997.
  • Opiates: Opiate use, including the misuse of prescription pain medication, has seen a drop among high school students, with a 45 percent decrease over the last five years. Even though heroin use is rampant in young and middle aged adults, only .03 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders report using it within the last year.
  • Long-Term Impact: According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, when an adolescent abstains from drug use, he or she is less likely to develop a chemical-dependence problem as an adult. Since drug education and prevention is a successful way to deter substance abuse among students, it follows that these programs lead to fewer adults with chemical-dependency issues.

While these statistics show that drug and alcohol use is dropping among students, it also shows that drug use is still there. According to the Office of Adolescent Health, by 12th grade, about half of all students have at least tried drugs or alcohol, with 35 percent of seniors admitting that within the last month, they have drank alcohol, 21 percent have used marijuana, and 11 percent have smoked a cigarette. Additionally, one in six high school seniors report binge drinking daily.

Role of Substance Abuse Counseling in Schools

With half of high school seniors admitting to having tried drugs or alcohol, the need for substance abuse counseling in schools is evident. School counselors play a huge role in substance abuse education, prevention, treatment and providing a safe place for students to talk. In collaborations with teachers, administrators, and outside agencies, school counselors can ensure that students are receiving the education and assistance that they need to lead and maintain healthy lives.

School Counselors as Agents of Change

When school counselors are educated in substance abuse issues, they can act as agents of change. By learning to recognize the warning signs that make students more vulnerable to substance abuse, counselors can learn positive ways to intervene and create proactive programs. According to an article sponsored by the American Counseling Association, the following factors can increase the risk of substance abuse among students:

  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Residing in an urban environment
  • Low household income
  • Limited parental education
  • Exposure to drug use through peers and family
  • Family history of certain mental health diagnoses

When a school counselor is aware of these risk factors, more effort can be put towards substance abuse prevention. And when substance abuse counselors do this, they can elicit positive changes among their students.

Improving Protective Factors

By utilizing substance abuse education and counseling in schools, counselors can increase the protective factors that make substance abuse less likely. These include improving student’s self image and self esteem, encouraging academic success, focusing on living a healthy lifestyle, improving child-parent relationships, and getting at-risk students involved with positive peer groups.

Implementing Prevention Programs

Another role the school counselor may have is to implement prevention programs. By offering substance abuse education in the form of school-wide programming, counselors build a community of drug awareness and positive attitudes. This social influence approach shows a reduction in drug use among students who participated in these prevention programs as compared to students who did not. This approach involves psychological inoculation (preparation of peer pressures), the teaching of drug resistance skills, correcting misunderstanding that many adults and adolescents use drugs, and using peer leadership in prevention programs.

Different Ways to Utilize Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counseling in schools can manifest in many different ways. In some areas, the primary school counselor receives substance abuse education, enabling him or her to provide services to students. In other states, school counselors have the option of pursuing additional coursework to become designated coordinators and are able to provide drug and alcohol counseling, education, and prevention.

  • Student Assistance Coordinator: School districts across New Jersey have created Student Assistance Coordinator (SAC) positions. These professionals provide a range of services including substance abuse education, prevention, intervention, counseling, and mental health services. They also partake in assessments and referrals and provide in-service and staff training, as well as assisting in reviewing schools’ alcohol, tobacco, and drug policies.
  • Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Specialist: New York offers schools Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Specialists (SAPIS). These substance abuse professionals provide prevention programs, intervention services, and counseling to students in an attempt to prevent the escalation of substance abuse concerns. These services are provided through a variety of means including classroom lessons, counseling, peer leadership programs, crisis intervention, conflict resolution, assessments, and referrals. SAPIS also provide parent workshops on substance abuse education, bullying, and violence prevention.
  • Student Assistance Programs: Both California and Pennsylvania offer Student Assistance Programs (SAP) that focus on offering substance abuse education to school personnel to help identify at risk students. SAPs also provide the framework to address student’s barriers such as attendance, school violence, issues with parents, and more.

No matter whether a school implements a specific substance abuse education program or employees a trained substance abuse counselor, the role they play is essential. Providing students with substance abuse education, prevention, and intervention services keeps students informed, builds a drug-free culture, and provides them with support when needed.