Youth Voices on Substance Abuse: A Guide to Empowerment and Action

18 August 2017 - The Youth Voices on Substance Abuse: A Guide to Empowerment and Action program engaged over one hundred upstate New York high school students in studies of key human rights documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals, followed by readings and classroom discussions exploring the causes and results of potentially addictive substance use.

Working with their teachers, with informed health and policy experts, and with resources and guidance by project organizer Gertrude Noden, from Words Into Deeds and Global Education Motivators, participants developed fact-based perspectives, then designed outreach projects to raise awareness among their peers and also provide direct support for local service organizations.

On April 20, 2017, eighteen of these students presented their perspectives on the opioid pandemic and recommended approaches to dealing with this health crisis at a briefing held under the auspices of the UN Department of Public Information, NGO Relations Section. Students were joined by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, whose Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy advocates expanded supportive and recovery services, and Michelle McElroy from Southern Tier Aids Program, which supports regional counseling and needle exchange programs. Also presenting were Yu Ping Chan from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, who provided a global perspective, and Jeff Brez, Chief, NGO Relations, Advocacy and Special Events.

At the briefing, several students shared very personal accounts of the effects of drugs on families. Students emphasized that scare tactics and “just say no” approaches are ineffective. Educators need to provide factual information about the range and effects – both positive and negative – of potentially addictive substances, beginning during elementary years and reinforced frequently. This allows youth to make decisions based on authentic information rather than misinformation from peers and others.

In their assessment of the Youth Voices program, students shared these comments:

“Being at the UN is one of the best things I have ever had the opportunity to do. It was empowering, and it made me feel important, like I could make a difference.”

“Through this process my biases have been shattered and my unconscious stereotypes irrevocably changed for the better.”

“Everyone is so afraid to talk about addiction that we end up hiding the truth about it from children. We are not helping anyone by keeping them in the dark.”

“I learned the importance of fighting for human rights in my town and globally.”

“This project taught me what it is to be a global citizen and how to take action to help your community.”

One audience member shared this reflection: “The poise and grace with which they held themselves in front of a worldwide audience was amazing to witness. If these students are representative of our future leadership, we are in good hands!”

Following the conference, students continued their outreach through interviews with reporters from print and radio media. The program culminated in a community celebration held at a local theater in Ithaca, NY. In addition to student presentations and posters, the event featured artists whose performances were based on Human Rights advocacy and experiences with substance abuse.

About the author

Gertrude Noden is the founder of Words Into Deeds.