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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 14:41 GMT
Shock drugs lessons 'do not work'
PSHE lesson
Schools can decide what to teach
Parents of other youngsters who have died from drug misuse have welcomed the decision to include photographs of a dead 21 year old in an educational video.

But professionals working in the field of drugs education are more sceptical.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the pressure group Drugscope, said his heartfelt thoughts went out to the parents of Rachel Whitear, who died from heroin use.

If the video saved only one life it would be a good thing - but research from around the globe showed that shock tactics did not work.

"It's understandable that parents and teachers want images like this to be shown to highlight the potentially fatal effects of drugs, but there is little evidence that such shock tactics actually work in changing behaviour.

Availability of treatment

"What we have recognised over many years is that we have got to give young people sustained drug education right from age five until they are 16.

Roger Howard, Drugscope
Roger Howard: "Better treatment needed"
"And that is not only about illegal drugs that's about alcohol, tobacco and medicines, things like that."

But the other lesson was that some young people would become addicted to heroin and the government could do more in the way of harm reduction to help them.

Only on Thursday a report from the Audit Commission had said that in some parts of England, heroin addicts had to wait four or five months before they could get treatment, he said.

"We need to make sure that young people like Rachel get access to help that they desperately need."

What schools do

Late in 2000, the year Rachel Whitear died, the government set targets for every secondary school and 80% of primary schools in England to have an anti-drugs education policy in place by the year 2003.

In Devon, a few miles from where Rachel died, the Schools Health Education Unit in Exeter says there is no clear evidence on what schools actually do because it is left to their own discretion.

The unit's research manager, David Regis, said health education was not compulsory and was rarely given more than a passing reference in Ofsted reports.

"There is a professional view that 'shock horror' tactics are not always the best way to introduce youngsters to sorting out their attitudes to illegal drugs - or anything else for that matter," he said.

"But there is a lot of natural sympathy for this approach. The burden of wanting to do something about the problem can be quite fierce and it seems such an obvious thing to do."

Saying no

But the recommended way to teach children about drugs was through discussion and the presentation of facts.

"It's not just knowledge that determines what you do," said Dr Regis.

"You may know that all sorts of things are bad for you but you do them for other reasons - speeding is an example."

An important focus of health education therefore involves building up children's personalities and self-esteem.

"So they have the confidence to know what they think and the social skills to put it into practice - so that if someone does put pressure on them to behave in a risky way they are able to say 'this isn't for me'."

Dr Regis points out that there are problems with that approach, too - the pressure of wanting to keep up with other people can be felt keenly even by adults, let alone youngsters.

"My friends are what keep me going, not the enemy I want to resist," he said.

Drugscope's Roger Howard
"The risk is teenagers may discount the message"

Drug death pictures
Do shock tactics work?
See also:

01 Mar 02 | Education
Heroin victim's death used as warning
01 Mar 02 | Education
'Our decision over addict daughter'
14 Jan 02 | Education
Drug users not always expelled
14 Oct 98 | Medical notes
Heroin: The facts
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