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The D.A.R.E. Program Is Missing the Biggest Piece in the Substance Abuse Puzzle

This week, I got to attend my oldest daughter’s D.A.R.E. program at her public school. In case you didn’t know, “D.A.R.E.” stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and it’s a short-term program that 10-12 year olds go through every year to learn about the negative effects of drug and alcohol use.

It’s the same program I went through in late elementary school. It still uses the same songs, the same mascot, and the same message of drug/alcohol abstinence.

The major problem I have with the program is that the message they’re sending to kids only addresses half the problem.

The D.A.R.E. program teaches students to resist peer pressure, educate themselves about the negative effects of substance use, understand why people use substances in the first place, and make a pledge to never use substances yourself. My daughter learned about healthy coping skills and how to tell when she’s feeling stressed. She also wrote an essay about why she never wants to smoke, drink, or do drugs in the future.

Those things are all good and well–I mean, the essay actually made me cry–but the program has the same flaws that abstinence education currently has.

Teaching kids what NOT to do is completely useless when we don’t also teach them what TO DO in place of that. There are also no “in-between” alternatives offered to kids who feel like they can’t meet that standard of perfection. Not to mention the fact that this program is really intense for a few months and then it completely drops off once kids have actually reached the age of peak vulnerability for substance use.

Most importantly, and possibly the most frustrating for me as a foster mom, is that it completely ignores the aspect of mental health when talking about substance abuse. Like…. COME ON. That is literally the number one contributing factor to alllllllll of those choices.

And for kids who’ve grown up surrounded by drug users (like my oldest daughter), the D.A.R.E. program can be kind of laughable and cheesy. Or, worse, it can be completely isolating and painful. Imagine sitting next to all of your classmates while they soak up statistics about drug use with morbid fascination while you hear everything through a lens of, “Here’s how likely your biological parents are to get themselves killed.”

Imagine trying to laugh at all the jokes the DARE officers make when you’re secretly processing through about fifty different emotions in your head. Imagine having information presented to you in a way that makes you feel like your parents are unable to heal, and that if you ever, EVEN ONCE, replicated your parents’ behaviors (even smoking cigarettes!), you will be doomed to an early death, as well.

Imagine. All at eleven years old.

While I understand that it’s very important for my foster daughter to understand the truth about substance abuse–particularly because she’s at an even higher risk than most kids are for using–it breaks my heart that the conversation revolves more around how bad the choice is than how hurt the user is. People don’t start drinking/smoking/using drugs for no reason. There is hurt there. There’s an unhealthy level of boredom due to lack of parental motivation or guidance. There’s loneliness. There’s adolescent depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

These people are HURTING, but all the students hear about it is that they’re bad choice makers.

Throughout this entire hour-long program, there was not one mention of statistics regarding childhood trauma, even though those are the people most likely to grow up to become addicts.

There was no mention of grace, redemption, healing, or forgiveness, even though a shocking number of kids on that stage already need those things for themselves (yes, there are already users at age 11).

There was no mention of drug culture, which perpetuates itself through generational poverty, mental illnesses, and cyclical trauma.

NOT ONE WORD was spoken about mental illness at all, even though that’s the number one cause of substance abuse. These kids weren’t taught about any mental issues, or how to identify mental health concerns in themselves or others, or who is at the highest risk for developing them.

I understand that the public school system is increasingly more responsible for teaching children things that their own parents ought to be teaching them, and I understand that schoolteachers cannot possibly cover every aspect of what a kid needs to know before reaching adulthood…

However… imagine if the 1.3 BILLION DOLLARS used for this drug-resistance program (yes, that’s really how much it costs) was used to teach kids about mental health. Imagine if it was used to employ in-school therapists for kids. Imagine if it was used to provide families with education about how to parent the next generation in emotionally healthy ways. Imagine if it was used to provide a support system for adolescents all the way through high school graduation so that they weren’t left to build their own support systems.

Imagine if we were teaching kids how to care for their WHOLE selves by placing as much importance on mental health as we do physical health. Imagine if we offered mental health education alongside physical education. Imagine if we addressed the rise in mental illnesses across the country as often as we address the obesity epidemic.

Imagine if we met children where they are and listened to their concerns instead of just teaching them about the arbitrary difference between right and wrong. And the difference between “right” and “wrong” IS arbitrary, guys.

It’s never simple. It’s never black and white. It’s never universal.

If we’re going to deem something “wrong,” and then shove it down the throats of every elementary schooler across the country, let’s teach them that the WRONG thing to do to ignore mental health while giving kids yet another expectation to meet, which they had no choice in creating or agreeing to.

Let’s do that.

The D.A.R.E. Program Is Missing the Biggest Piece in the Substance Abuse Puzzle

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). The D.A.R.E. Program Is Missing the Biggest Piece in the Substance Abuse Puzzle. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 May 2019
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