Substance Abuse And The Search For Rewards

Newtown Bee Commentary

Newtown High School Principal Bill Manfredonia reported to the Board of Education last week on a month-long assessment of the school’s substance abuse policy and programs by high school faculty and administrators. His recommendations included a more aggressive effort to identify and address substance abuse problems by expediting the disciplinary process for students caught with drugs or alcohol along with stepped-up support for preventative measures. These include student abstinence pledges, educational programs for both kids and their parents, and a revision of the school’s health curriculum to foster a “stronger, more comprehensive health program.”

Mr Manfredonia’s report is in line with the Board of Education’s Substance Abuse Policy, which begins by asserting the schools’ “important role in the early detection of substance abuse, the protection of children from use, promotion and sale of alcohol and controlled substances, the improper use and sale of prescription drugs, and a partnership role with families and other institutions.” It ends by acknowledging that “the solutions to the difficult problems of substance abuse need to be approached by society as a whole.”

All these words are wise, and correct, and essential for local educators and the community leaders to understand as they take aim at Newtown’s persistent drug problems. But sometimes the cold and calculated language of reports and policies does not adequately address the true suffering that lies at the heart of substance abuse.

A decade ago, the US Government Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) tried to identify the “root causes” of substance abuse and concluded that there are none that universally apply to everyone. It did describe, however, three preconditions that lead to substance abuse: biology and pharmacology (the “pleasant effects”); availability; and persistent use, leading to abuse and dependency. School officials, local police, and support groups and agencies, like Newtown’s Parent Connection and Newtown Youth Services, are working tirelessly to address and eliminate the latter two preconditions. It is the first precondition, however, that may be the key to unlocking our understanding of the problem.

The OTA report concluded, “Most drugs of abuse influence the brain’s reward system.” The appeal of these drugs, then, depends in large part upon a person’s need for rewards. And it happens to be the most fundamental rewards of a human life – love, acceptance, attention, self- and world-awareness, knowledge, and spiritual development – that have been shown to be protective factors against substance abuse and dependency. All of these rewards may come to fruition in schools and communities, but they germinate at home in the family. Where love, acceptance, and attention are replaced by aggression and intolerance, where awareness and knowledge is foreclosed by ignorance, and where inspiration is clouded by disorder and confusion, the “rewards” of substance abuse gain currency.

We should appreciate all the work our public institutions are doing to address drug and alcohol problems in Newtown’s youth. But we also need to appreciate our own power as family members and friends to share the fundamental blessings of life with those so desperate for reward that they go looking for it in a bottle or a pill. Sometimes, all it takes is to open our eyes to the suffering of others.

Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company