Ten years ago I helped develop a ‘healthy choices’ program for middle school and high school students. Schools invited me to present the program in health class. The program educated teens about risky behaviors and empowered them to avoid negative behaviors, including drug and substance abuse. Typically, I remained in each health class for a week. Due to the nature of the topics we discussed, the conversations were honest and deep. This gave me a great opportunity to truly connect with students and understand why some teens might be interested in making risky choices.
I presented the program in Franklin County schools for more than eight years. In Dublin in Worthington alone I have spent more than 400 hours in class and reached more than 9,000 students. In that time I learned a lot about human nature, teen behavior and what drives young people to start using - and subsequently abusing - substances.
A mentor once told me that risky behaviors (he qualified this as sin) are generally more attractive to humans than healthy behaviors (he qualified this as virtue). In a very theological way he was right. However, I believe humans will always be attracted to something deeper.
I don't have all the answers and I don't pretend to know everything about human nature and psychology. However, if we give people the opportunity to follow something deeper (I would call this passion), then the chances of them turning to risky behaviors decreases.
Theology has always shaped my beliefs about human nature. Listening to teens (and others) helps me to put a face on the issues and helps me to understand the depth of our human desires. These collective life experiences led me to pursue thoughtful and meaningful public policy - understanding the honest impact policies have on real people. It is all consistent with sound theology.
We, as humans, do want something deeper. We want meaningful healthy relationships. We want to follow our passions. We want something that gives us hope and purpose.
That's what I've learned from the tens of thousands of students that I've interacted with throughout the years. That's what my graduate studies have led me to. That's what my weekly attendance at Mass has taught me. Going door-to-door in this campaign and in previous campaigns, I’ve heard first-hand that we all want something deeper. It is a constant refrain wherever I go.
From a policy perspective, public leaders have an obligation to allow for that human depth. If we give people the opportunity to pursue their passions, live a more meaningful life and live free from unhealthy relationships, they will be attracted to that life. More people will choose healthy behaviors over risky ones if we encourage healthy relationships. Less people will follow the path of substance use and abuse.
How do we get there?
First, it's important to recognize that addiction is real. We must develop, promote and support programs that offer steps towards recovery for those who are affected by addiction. We also must expand and support programs that offer diversion to users who are not necessarily addicted, but are showing behaviors of abuse. Situations like this are very complex and I will write about this in a separate article. Generally, what I'm referring to is prevention and education.
It's easy to say we need more prevention outreach and education, but really it goes deeper. We need to tap into that ever-present human desire to give young people (and all people) something better. We need to give them opportunity to develop healthy passions and follow those passions. This can come in many forms, and I will write more on this later. But, do you see the depth of this issue, and do you see the way to begin addressing it?