Mental Health Matters: A learning lesson from high school students
February 11, 2015
A few months ago, I was invited to speak with Incline High School students about drugs and drug abuse.
Lecturing to high school students is not one of my specialties, but I felt honored and eager to impart what I know about the topic.
I thought that I did passably well; the students appeared interested, energized and engaged. We made eye contact. They asked good, and at times, provocative questions.
I also thought it important to tell them the truth about drugs, alcohol and tobacco, or at least my truth, based on the facts as I know them and my clinical experience.
“Marijuana, illegal, is safer than alcohol, legal. Don’t believe what you are told. It might feel great today, but after 5-10 years, your life is ruined.”Comment from an Incline High School student
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For those of you who read this column regularly, you might recall that I contributed to a bit of spirited and healthy controversy around town before my school presentation, having written a column in which I stated that marijuana, an illegal drug, is safer than alcohol, a legal drug.
My column led to the conclusion on the part of some that I was "for marijuana" and that it was cool, or at least "OK" for teens to smoke it.
I tried to dispel these inaccurate conclusions in my high school presentation, in part by talking about the danger of drugs, legal and illegal, and comparing or ranking them from most dangerous to least dangerous.
I told the students that even the least dangerous drug, marijuana, was still dangerous for adolescents and told them why it's dangerous.
The school, as an exercise in both assessing the talks and evaluating their impact, wisely asked each student to comment on them.
I was being graded! Would I have signed on had I known it before the talk? Well, yeah, I would.
Now the results are in; With trepidation, I share them with you.
Most of the students "got it," namely they understood much of what I had to say. A few did not, a finding I will live with and hope to rectify if given a chance to talk with students again the next time this excellent program is offered.
Here are some of the comments made by students who I thought most closely understood my remarks:
Said one student, "Pot is less bad than alcohol. Don't do drugs."
Another response: "Marijuana, illegal, is safer than alcohol, legal. Marijuana shortens memory. Marijuana affects teens more than adults because the adolescent brain is not fully developed."
Here's another: "Marijuana, illegal, is safer than alcohol, legal. Don't believe what you are told. It might feel great today, but after 5-10 years, your life is ruined."
Another: "If parents are substance users, then you are more likely to be a substance user. Marijuana is not highly addictive."
And: "Drugs revolve around money/income. Marijuana is safer than alcohol. Marijuana users are more likely to drop out of school, later have less educated jobs, and will make their health bad."
And here's one I surely liked: "Dr. Whyman appeared very intelligent when he spoke about marijuana vs. alcohol. He made me realize that alcohol kills many people but is still legal and appears safer to most people. When I realized this, it made me think about all the people I know that drink regularly."
Then there were — comments from a few students who I failed. I say that I failed them because they heard something I did not intend, namely that doing drugs is "OK"
Said one student, "Dr. Whyman's presentation was a little different from any other presentation. Many walked away with the attitude that they will do drugs. He said it's OK to do weed after the age of 25 after your brain has developed."
Here's another comment: "If Dr. Whyman's goal was to persuade kids not to do drugs, he did a very poor job. It seems that he was recommending marijuana over alcohol. The one thing he did right was warn us of the dangers of alcohol."
And these remarks: "Dr. Whyman talked about how marijuana and alcohol are not dangerous as long as the person using them are at least 21 years old."
So what have I learned, or better put, relearned, from this experience? First, good teaching is hard work, ideally requiring a well honed skill set, and an understanding of your audience.
Two, nuanced comment and medical facts can be misconstrued, maybe more so with young adults.
And three, because high school students need to understand the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, no one leaves my next lecture before saying, "Yes, Dr. W., I understand that all drugs are bad for me, some more so than others."
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. His column focuses on drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. It appears every other week in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.