Scare Tactics Or Science Talk: Different Approaches To Drug Education

My Drug Education Experience

I have always operated under the motto of “Drugs are bad”. But it wasn’t until a recent paper discussion in neurochemistry that I began to understand the science behind addiction. I recall taking a health class in school that had a unit on drugs and alcohol. We watched the typical videos about people overdosing, driving under the influence, and were given graphic details on side-effects and. I received the simple message that drugs were bad because they would ruin your life.

Scare tactics like these work for some people. They certainly worked for me. However, not all students take the information pushed on them in school to heart. Some people experiment in high school or college. Maybe they go to a party and there are drugs present and it seems like no big deal. Perhaps drugs are common and easily available at home. For some, scare tactics fall short because drugs are part of the normal environment. So how can they be reached?

Parental Involvement

My parents are a big influence as to why I do not partake in illegal substance use. I have a good relationship with my parents for which I am thankful for. I know not everyone has the best relationships with their parents and not all parents have the much-needed talks with their children surrounding drugs or alcohol. My parents never explicitly sat me down to talk about drugs, but I simply knew they’d be disappointed if I started to use illegal substances. My mom made it clear that I could always use her as an excuse to say no to anything I didn’t want to do.

As I have gone through my undergrad years, developing my own personal values and beliefs, I have given some thought to what I may tell my kids (if that is in my future) surrounding the topic of drugs and alcohol. Some parents take the strict end of the spectrum and say absolutely no to even thinking about using drugs or alcohol. That may lead to children who don’t feel comfortable coming to their parents if they need help and kids that end up sneaking around behind their parents’ backs. Other parents go the other extreme and act more like friends to their kids giving them the sense that whatever they do is fine and they will even join them.

My parents landed in a happy medium. I knew illegal substances were off limits, but I could always talk to my parents if I needed to. They understood that things happen and wanting to fit in is a real issue that doesn’t go away once you’ve reached adulthood. I expect I will emulate my parents’ stance in the future.

The Science Behind It All

A route that may work even better for some kids is to explain to them the neuroscience behind drugs and addiction. In a way this is similar to scare tactics because frankly it is some scary stuff. You don’t even have to know a lot about neuroscience and the brain to be able to understand some of the addiction basics. Schools and parents could easily use a logical scientific explanation for their kids if that will reach them better.

Dopamine is the chemical your brain releases in response to something you find pleasurable, like drugs, food, and sex. This chemical is what gives you that “feel good” sensation that makes you want more. The amount of dopamine is regulated closely to ensure proper functioning of many aspects of the brain. The pathway that drugs and dopamine work on is the mesolimbic pathway shown below.

When someone takes drugs, they get an increase of dopamine release to various brain regions. The drug causes dopamine producing neurons in the ventral tegmentum area (VTA) to release dopamine to the nucleus accumbens (NAc). The dopamine binds to receptors and stimulates the NAc to release dopamine to the prefrontal cortex. This all results in the “high” people feel when taking drugs.

Repeated drug use causes this dopamine pathway to be more active than normal. Drugs cause changes to neuron growth and connectivity, ultimately making the pathway stronger. This change to the structure of the brain increases reactivity to drug cues and reduces sensitivity to non-drug rewards. The fact that drugs change brain structure and neuron growth makes addiction a neurological disease.

What Works for You?

In the end it comes down to what works for you so that you or your children don’t become addicted to substances. Between scare tactics, parental involvement, and a scientific explanation there are plenty of routes to choose from. For me scare tactics seemed to work, but as a biology and neuroscience major identifying addiction as a neurological disease that changes the brain structure helped me to understand addiction in a different light. Instead of blaming a person for becoming addicted, I now know addiction is much more complicated


For more on the science behind addiction check out this article:

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