Vigilance and Education on Substance Abuse

By Lianne Forman

As an educator, you are on the “front lines” and act as one of the most critical sources of connection and emotional support for your students. School staff are charged with nurturing relationships with children, potentially in a virtual setting, and ensuring their social and emotional wellness during these stressful times. During a time of crisis, children are increasingly vulnerable to mental health issues. Providing support, and assessing and ensuring every child’s needs are met, can be incredibly challenging in the best of times, and even more so during these uncertain times. It is incumbent on us, particularly those with these valuable relationships with our students, to be even more vigilant in our efforts to detect any signs of distress including the use of alcohol and drugs.

Aside from adverse impact of the general stress and uncertainty in our world caused by the pandemic, children are also suffering from the social isolation and other Covid-related life changes. We all know that socializing is critical to children’s health and wellbeing. Students who get meaning and fulfillment from their usual school, social and extracurricular activities may no longer have those outlets. We should also consider the major disruption to their routines outside of school, such as the significant changes to common life milestones such as graduations, bar/bat mitzvahs, and birthdays, or having other/more family members now living in the home on a regular basis. Such changes can lead to or worsen alcohol and substance use or misuse, making those who struggle with these issues far more vulnerable. We should also remember that many kids may be home for days/hours at a time, unsupervised, which can lead to higher risk and increased opportunities to use and misuse substances. 

Also consider the fact that parents/caregivers are under a lot of pressure themselves, perhaps having to meet work obligations while supervising and caring for children at home, or facing economic challenges due to a loss of employment or, sadly, emotional difficulties due to the loss of a loved one. Preoccupied with these issues, a parent may miss the sometimes very subtle signs of their children using drugs and/or alcohol. Parents, themselves, may be turning to substances to cope with the stress and anxiety related to the pandemic, unfortunately modeling to their children that this is a way to “cope” with the current crisis. 

In our support group for those with loved ones struggling with substance misuse and addiction, we are seeing that many of those struggling with substance use are self-medicating to deal with the stress and anxiety. In many cases, parents are being forced into impossible situations where they must endure their child’s substance use because there is nowhere else for the child to go and they want to keep them as safe as possible. Some parents have been compelled to stock up on Naloxone, the drug administered when someone has overdosed on opioids, simply to save their child’s life while they attempt to follow a harm-reduction model, knowing that their child is using while under their roof, but unable to stop it.

What can you do to help? Keep the lines of communication open and be compassionate. Try to notice the signs and symptoms of substance misuse and address the issue openly and honestly, without judgment or criticism. Give the student the chance to speak and express their concerns; they may be waiting for an opportunity to talk about something troubling them. Hopefully, the child’s parents are there to partner with you in these efforts, and you can engage them and candidly express your concerns. Help and enable them be a credible source of information about substances by providing information and programs, such as ours, to educate them on current drug trends, how to recognize if your child is using substances or developing a disorder, and ways to communicate your concerns effectively with your child.

Possible signs and symptoms of substance use disorders:
Behavioral and personality/social changes

  • Decline in performance at work or school
  • Freuently getting into trouble
  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability or angry outbursts
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation or giddiness
  • Acting sullen, lethargic or depressed
  • Sudden change in friends, activities or normal hangouts
  • Loss of interest in usual hobbies and activities
  • Unexplained need for money

Physical changes

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Deterioration of physical appearance and lack of hygiene
  • Unusual smells of breath, body or clothing
  • Tremors, slurred speech or impaired coordination

Knowledge is power. Education about substances is important for children, teens and adults (faculty and parents alike). There are many misconceptions about commonly used substances, such as nicotine and alcohol, and especially about ones that are made to sound harmless, like marijuana. People of all ages should be aware of the damage that drugs and alcohol can potentially do the body and brain, as well as one’s emotional wellbeing.

Ensuring that children are educated about drugs can act as a protective factor and help prevent children from using them. Helping adults understand the repercussions of drug use can enable them to provide accurate information and help their children. Educating your staff, parents and students on symptoms of substance misuse and how to get help is critical to all of our combined efforts in awareness and prevention of substance use by our children.

Lianne Forman is the executive director of Communities Confronting Substance Abuse, a not-for-profit organization that provides education and awareness regarding substance misuse and addiction to audiences from middle school to adults. For specific information regarding school programming, see