SOS Safety Magazine had the chance to interview Susan K. Hutt, Community Manager at Drug Free Kids Canada, about the current state of teen drug use in our nation, how families should prepare for cannabis legalization, and how their organization is not only educating youth and families about the myriad of drug-related dangers they’re exposed to, but also how their efforts are helping to save our society nearly $315 million per year.

Can you tell our readers a bit about DFK Canada and what you define your mission as?

DFK Canada is a non-profit organization made up of a community of parents committed to the prevention of drug abuse by young people.

Around ten years ago a group of concerned parents came together to look for solutions to deal with the abuse and misuse of prescription and illegal drugs by teens. This core group of volunteer parents included media professionals who realized that public awareness was the key to help other parents understand what was happening. They reached out to other professionals in the media industry and began to work on campaigns that would not only educate the public but also try to work on the “not my kid” syndrome. They were able to leverage their media contacts to provide free media time and space.

We believe that raising awareness and educating parents and youth about substance use can go a long way towards reducing drug and alcohol use and addiction.

Parents do make a difference.  Studies have shown that a parent may be able to reduce their child’s risk of drug use by up to 50%, just by talking with them. In fact, one of the main reasons kids have said they would avoid taking drugs is because they don’t want to disappoint their parents.

How does your organization aim to educate youth and families about drugs and drug use in Canada?

Substance use among teens and pre-teens is a major area of concern. 90% of addiction begins in adolescence, according to research done by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

As a non-profit, we began with a focus on drug prevention, and that remains important for us – if parents are able to delay their kids’ experimentation with substances like alcohol, cannabis and tobacco until at least 18 – they stand a better chance of avoiding dependency.

The key is to reach parents and caregivers, as they are the first and most influential teachers our children have. We make use of multiplatform campaigns comprised of Radio, TV, Print and every form of Out-of-Home digital media imaginable to create two or three memorable PSA’s a year – either about prescription drug misuse, high driving or talking with kids about cannabis.

The aim is to provide engaging and relevant PSA’s that act as starting points for meaningful family discussions. By engaging youth at an early age, and opening up the lines of communication, both youth and parents will have a clearer understanding of the drug abuse issue and the dangers surrounding misuse.

We also work hard on our website which provides a lot of evidence-based information (thanks to our incredible Advisory Council – a group of volunteer subject matter experts who offer insights and knowledge) and offers practical tools for parents to help them talk with their kids. We feel that being informed about substances and having open and frequent conversations about drugs and alcohol with kids is the key to drug prevention.

As we know, parenting teens today comes with some challenges and that is why DFK has reached out to provide researched based tips, tools, information and strategies to help them connect with their kids.

Whether it’s through the DFK website, or on a variety of media platforms, we feel that engaging parents as collaborative partners is critical to DFK’s Mission to reduce or eliminate substance abuse as teens navigate their way through their growing years.

Does DFK focus efforts on connecting directly with youth? If so, what have you found to be successful methods of connecting with them?

It’s definitely something we’d like to do in the future, but at present, our target audience is parents, caregivers, teachers and health providers. We have made efforts to help parents connect with teens that drive with The Call That Comes After Campaign, which used some innovative smartphone technology to drive the message about the dangers of high driving home to kids.

Our hope is that by providing the springboards for meaningful discussions through our media campaigns, we are speaking to youth through their parents and helping them to strengthen the protective factors that are so important in today’s world.

What advice would you give to families on how they should communicate, discuss, or approach these topics? 

Every family is different, each parent knows their own child best, and has an inkling of how their kids might react to a touchy or difficult conversation. As a parent myself, I can only relate to how I handled things. With four daughters, it wasn’t always easy or smooth, that’s for sure. Each time I had to broach a difficult subject like drugs with my teens, I read as much as I could about it and picked a time when neither of us could be easily distracted.

Sometimes the tough subjects took me some time to think about – and I definitely failed a few times on the first tries. The trick for me was to never give up – I kept bringing the subject up again and again, often in different ways. That helped me to gauge how each one of my kids would react, and helped me find the best time to go back in and start the conversation again. Best moments for me were driving them somewhere – I had their undivided attention.

One of my daughters had friends who had been in a horrific car accident as passengers in a car with a driver that was both drunk and stoned – unfortunate as it was, that incident opened the door for many conversations about driving high within the family.

Another approach is a ‘co-learning’ experience, where parents and caregivers engage in the research together. For example, Fentanyl is a huge subject in the news these days. As a parent, this might be a time to do some research with your teen. Using credible sites, explore what it is, what it does and why it is so dangerous and have a discussion. That way, you aren’t ‘preaching’, you are learning together.

Perhaps it would be interesting to engage in a family discussion about the impending legalization of marijuana. Ask your kids what they think about the issue. Where do they get their information? Is it reliable? What will they do if someone offers it to them? Is government-sanctioned marijuana safer? How do they know? What strategies can they use to refuse if it’s offered to them? These kinds of discussions can tell you a lot about what your child may know, how accurate their perception is, what they need to know and what they can do to avoid it.

What is the biggest challenge regarding youth and drugs right now in Canada?

Youth are dealing with different stressors in their lives now than their parents did and when there’s no one to talk to about the issues a young person is facing, it’s relatively easy to find some substance they can use to self-medicate as a way to help them deal with anxiety or depression.

The fact is that for some youth, substance use appears to be “cool” and it’s assumed by many in society to be a right of passage into adulthood. Many youths say they take drugs to get to sleep or to ‘escape’. As parents, it might be good to ask our kids what they think kids nowadays want to escape from? No doubt, the word stress will come out in the discussions. Ask them what they think stress means and what causes stress in their lives. There is a lot of research that talks about raising resilient children – fostering strength, hope and optimism. The aim is to teach kids to self-regulate, to know when they are at risk and employ the tools to manage the stress before it becomes overwhelming.

There is good news though. Youth mental health is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves, and in some communities, youth are getting the support they need to help them make healthier choices.

What do you feel is the current state of drug use by youth in Canada? Is this a growing issue, are we making progress – where do we currently stand?

Overall drug use by youth is down – so that’s a great thing. Alcohol is the number one drug used by teens. It also causes so many health problems, we’ve heard someone say that if the dangers surrounding alcohol use, addiction, drunk driving, binge drinking were understood way back when, the minimum age would be 30! 

Presently, young Canadians (15-24) have the highest rate of cannabis use in the developed world. That’s cause for concern, when cannabis becomes legal, just like alcohol, will kids be asking the question, “If it’s legal, why shouldn’t I try it?” That’s where educated parents come in.

Understanding about recreational vs. medical use of cannabis – cannabis use disorder, psychosis etc. is critical. Cannabis can have both short and long-term negative effects. It can increase the risk of accidents by slowing down reaction time, impairing coordination and impacting clear focus and decision making. And, when combined with alcohol, or other psychoactive substances, the risk level increases.

Our Cannabis Talk Kit helps parents and anyone involved with kids understand cannabis better and provides suggestions on how to talk with young people about cannabis and other drugs.

Your website claims that you helped 700 teens avoid addiction last year – can you tell us about the efforts that led to that success? Where do you feel you get the most response for your efforts?

Yes, isn’t that amazing! We’re thrilled that DFK has had such a positive impact on so many young lives.

As an organization that’s dedicated to educating parents about youth and drugs, we had been wondering if we were having any impact on the lives of Canadian families. That questioning led us to commission a study to determine DFK’s impact on prevention and social return on investment.

The study determined that the total reduction in drug abuse amongst Canadian youth that is attributable to DFK efforts was 700 teens per year. The study also determined that the lifetime cost to society of an addicted teen was $450,000. That means that besides helping 700 teens avoid addiction, DFK helps society save $315 Million per year.

Source: McGill Not-for Profit Consulting, DesAutels School of Business 2017
Quantifying DFK’s Social Return on Investment: The Impact of Prevention

Can you tell us about “The Call That Comes After” and what kind of reaction you’ve received from that campaign?

We just loved The Call That Comes After Campaign – it’s a message that has had a huge impact, (including winning several awards) reaching parents AND kids – making great use of technological innovation and smartphones to “drive” the message about the dangers of high driving home to families.

Involving several different media and technological components, The Call That Comes After campaign begins with a video of some teenagers making a plan to go to someone’s party.  A teenage girl gets into a car driven by the guy she likes, who has just smoked a joint. They share a smile, while he drives, she texts on her phone and looks up only to see a bright light as they’re presumably hit by another car. The last shot is her phone on the road with texts from her mom.

The Call that Comes After web page invites parents to share the video with their kids, and when the teen has finished watching the video he/she receives the same text from their parent that they see on the video. It’s meant to be a conversation starter and according to the responses from the teen focus group, it definitely was.

High Driving is already a serious issue, with the legalization of recreational cannabis, it becomes even more important that kids of driving understand the risks. 

Studies show that driving high nearly doubles the risk of an accident, but a recent study commissioned by DFK Canada found that nearly one third (32%) of teens feel driving high is not as risky as drunk driving, while one in four high school seniors say they have ridden in a car with a high driver.

What can you tell us about the Secure Your Meds campaign and what we should know about prescription drug misuse by kids in Canada?

The #secureyourmeds campaign is about making sure prescription medication is stored and disposed of safely and it’s going on until mid -September. According to DFK estimates, 375,000 Canadian teens have misused prescription medications and 55% of those teens got the meds from a home.

Many households contain medications like painkillers and stimulants and over the counter cough medications, that can do harm when abused or taken with other meds. Over the years we’ve partnered with a number of pharmacies nationally to help the public understand the importance of safe drug disposal, for their kid’s security and for the environment, and it’s just so easy to do.

This year, August will be declared National Drug Take Back Month: a DFK initiative endorsed and supported by Health Canada, The Canadian Order of Pharmacists, l’Ordre des pharmaciens du Québec, The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Health Products Stewardship Association etc. Last year, a total of 725 tons of medications were brought back to participating pharmacies – we’re hoping to break that record this year!

What can parents and families do to keep their children safe from the harms of prescription drug misuse?

Talk, talk and talk some more with their kids and keep their medications locked up. If their child is prescribed opioid painkillers, it’s important to have a conversation with the prescribing doctor about their safe use. Have the discussion that surrounds the statement, “If your name isn’t on the container, don’t take it.”

Many kids assume that if the ‘medicine’ has been prescribed by a doctor and their parents seem okay when taking it then it can’t hurt them. It is a dangerous assumption. Talk to your kids about being offered any form of drug on the street, in school or in their community. Warn them about taking seemingly harmless pills that “came from a friend’s place’- they may have come off the street and can contain illicit fentanyl. Talk to them about other seemingly inoffensive offerings like drug-laced gummy bears. If they are old enough to be attending parties, remind them to never leave a drink of any kind alone. Someone could drop a drug into it while they are gone.

We don’t want to use scare tactics – they don’t work and only add to the stress a teen might already feel, but having several meaningful, open, honest conversations with kids can go a long way to emphasizing important safety issues and establishing the trust both parents and kids need.

How do you feel about the legalization of cannabis and how it might impact the safety of our youth?

Our concern with the legalization of cannabis is centred only on the effects of recreational use of cannabis on the mental and physical health of kids. Cannabis legalization will make prevention education even more vital, especially for younger kids, and much more attention will be required to reduce the harm that cannabis use and substance use in general causes our young people. We all need to be more aware as a society of the reasons that kids would use any drug and be sure to address them properly.

Do you have any suggestions on how parents can talk to their kids about cannabis, or provide any insight as to how that conversation might change when legalization rolls out across the nation?

The main concern is that kids may begin to feel that if cannabis is legal, it’s safe to use. Just as with alcohol, the conversation could centre around the drug’s short and long-term effects on young brains, as well as the importance of not driving while high, or getting into a car with an impaired driver. As with any mind-altering substance, discovering and dealing with the reasons why a young person might want to try it should also be discussed between parent and youth.

What resources would you recommend to parents having the cannabis conversation with their children?

With the knowledge that cannabis legislation was coming this year, The DFK Cannabis Talk Kit was created a year ago in conjunction with the assistance of Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) and Health Canada to provide parents with information about cannabis and its effects on youth and to offer practical tips to help parents talk with their kids. The Talk Kit is available for download on our site and free printed copies are available and distributed via Health Canada.

What key accomplishments stand out for you and the organization when it comes to your efforts thus far?

There are quite a few:

  • Through our National Drug Drop off initiative, Canadians returned 725 tons of medications in 2017. That tells us the public is beginning to understand the importance of safe disposal of medications.
  • Over 250 thousand Cannabis Talk Kits have been distributed, including one to every household in the Northwest Territories (30,000) and we’re aiming to increase that number as we get closer to October 2018.
  • We’re growing our community of parents by sharing important resources like the Talk Kit and Parent Drug chart.
  • Last year, over 200,000 people visited our website

But the best thing for us all here is that DFK’s efforts have helped prevent 700 kids from becoming addicted. That touches us the most – it’s what we work so hard for. Our Vision is to ensure that all young people will be able to live their lives free of drug or alcohol abuse.

What do you feel is the most important message youth and families need to hear right now?

Be smart. Be aware. Be open to talk. Be open to listen. Educate yourself. Be engaged in your own health and future. Know there will be stressful times – find healthy, substance-free ways to get you through them. Empower yourself.   

Do you have any new projects, news, or developments people should be looking out for? And where can people find you if they want to learn more and stay connected?

We’re planning a Back to School Toolkit for parents. It can be a stressful time of year for families, – new grade, new school – so we want to make sure that parents have all the information they need to have informed talks with their kids about substance use.

Parents will be invited to sign up to receive weekly emails filled with information on prescription drugs, cannabis, how to talk to kids, what to say, what to watch out for, etc. We’re excited about it because it’s the first time we’ve packaged great info in a useful way – just in time for the back to school weeks.

We’re also planning to launch the DFK Canada Family Network within the next year. It’s a state of the art mobile app that will have the potential to connect parents, caregivers, health professionals and individuals to an inclusive forum that will share research, resources and ideas with those who care about youth substance abuse. We are very excited about it, so please keep watching our website for more information!

We’re working on getting funding for a national 24/7 toll-free parent drug helpline, to assist parents concerned about their kid’s drug use get information and help they need in their area.

Our multimedia PSA campaign focus will be on cannabis for the next ten months, with the Cannabis Talk Kit and a new PSA coming in January.

We’re really excited about our projects for the coming years, and we plan on continuing to expand our efforts to educate Canadian families about substance abuse, provide parents with the tools they need to talk with their kids and engage them to continue the conversation.