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William L. Somes is a senior political science and economics double major at the University of Maine who studies drug prevention education as a Drug Policy Research Fellow. The opinions expressed here are his and do not reflect the views of the fellowship, the University of Maine, or the University of Maine System.
A decade ago, I sat silently at my desk as I listened to a person with substance use disorder tell about the incredible ability of white powder to bring a grown man to his knees, to the iron bars of a prison cell, and, finally, to a 6th grade classroom.
As I listened to this man share his life story, I remember feeling his pain almost as if it were my own. I began to believe that if we could just prevent people from using drugs in the first place, we could prevent their pain also.
I now know that the issue of substance use involves much more than prevention alone, though it is true that prevention remains an important piece of the puzzle.
Prevention is significant for several reasons. For one, adolescents are more likely than any other age group to experiment with substances, and the earlier substance use is initiated in a young person’s life, the more likely a disorder will follow. In addition, research has shown that preventing substance use early on, particularly in preadolescents, results in fewer instances of abuse in the future. While prevention education may not work for everyone (some youth are going to use drugs no matter what), there is a clear need to utilize prevention programs when possible.
Maine is a pioneer when it comes to prevention efforts in public schools, as the Department of Education recently released a free, statewide curriculum for pre-K through 12th grade classrooms called “SEL4ME.” The curriculum was developed in conjunction with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Corrections. Grounded in the evidence-based Social Emotional Learning framework, SEL4ME helps youth develop skills in self management, self awareness and responsible decision making, among other things.
Many studies have confirmed the efficacy of SEL-based programs at reducing substance use in the short term. For example, LifeSkills Training was proven to reduce alcohol and polydrug use one year post intervention among participants who were at high risk for substance use. Positive Action, another SEL-based prevention program, was also shown to reduce substance use, in this case after 1 year post-intervention.
Reducing substance use in youth is critical, especially since the consequences can be severe and permanent. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, substance misuse occurring before the age of 25 can lower intelligence, attention span and motivation. While the effects substances have on the developing brain is not yet well understood, what we do know is that sustained substance use can lead to a host of problems down the road, including dependence on addictive substances, healthcare expenses, and with the current legal apparatus, criminal penalties.
Too many Maine youth are at risk of experiencing these problems. In a 2013 survey, 15 percent of high school students reported having five or more consecutive drinks in the past month, 13 percent reported smoking at least one cigarette in the past month, and 6 percent reported lifetime cocaine use. By one measure, Maine ranks second only to Vermont for the highest rates of teenage illicit drug use in the nation.
SEL4ME is a promising solution to the substance use problem among Maine youth. But the program is new and in many ways still growing. According to Kellie Bailey, the Department of Education’s SEL specialist, more work can be done to train teachers on how to implement SEL4ME in their classrooms. In addition, the department plans to conduct a longitudinal study of program effectiveness over the next several years. Accomplishing these important goals will require additional funding.
One potential funding source may be a forthcoming bill in the Maine Legislature, titled “An Act To Provide Funds for Community-based Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Recovery Services and To Reduce by Half the Funding for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.” While the bill does not currently direct funding to SEL4ME, doing so would satisfy the bill’s intent, which is to create a more compassionate response to the substance use problem in Maine.
SEL4ME is a giant step forward in addressing the substance use issues that have caused Mainers so much pain. With enough funding, there is no telling how many lives it could change.