Drug Education: A Community Approach

Mrs Alice Dabelstein, Head of Hirschfeld House

During October, Brisbane Girls Grammar School and Brisbane Grammar School communities were fortunate to welcome back Mr Paul Dillon, for the fifth consecutive year. Founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia and a former school teacher, Mr Dillon has been working in the field of drug education for more than twenty-five years. He works with many school communities across the country to ensure they have access to accurate information, including updates on current drug trends and best practice in drug education.

Mr Dillon values a whole community approach. For Girls Grammar this included separate presentations for our Year 10, 11 and 12 cohorts, as well as extremely informative sessions with teachers and parents. Similar messages are carried throughout his presentations, each creating a positive dialogue in the hope the conversation relating to drugs and alcohol will continue, most importantly, at the family dinner table.

Unfortunately, due to the busy time of year, fewer parents attended this year’s evening information session held at BGS, which is why Mr Dillon’s invaluable advice is reinforced within this article.

‘Adolescence is a period of intense growth not only physically but also morally and intellectually. “Teens” are often energetic, thoughtful and idealistic, with deep interest in what is fair and right’ (Dillon, 2014). Grammar girls are no exception. They are interested in collecting information that will help them look after themselves and each other. When Mr Dillon is introduced to the students every year it initiates unprompted applause. He has come to expect this ‘rock star’ welcome that he attributes only to Brisbane Girls Grammar School. His student presentations are engaging and confronting. A clear message of safety and sensible decision making is delivered which complements the drug education program offered by the BGGS Health and Physical Education (HPE) Faculty.

Our collective message is one of prevention and reduction of harm from drug use by building more resilient adolescents. We understand the importance of a whole school approach to building this resilience and developing social and emotional competencies. HPE includes the drug education units: ‘I Decide’ (Year 8), ‘Party Safe’ (Year 9) and ‘Get REDI’ (Year 10). These units focus on developing protective behaviours such as responsible decision making, calculated risk taking, the facts about drugs and the practical ‘how to look after your friends’. The Year 10 Heath and Physical Education unit aligns perfectly and purposefully with information imparted by Mr Dillon.

Presentations to Years 10 and 11 are themed primarily around Alcohol: the facts and ‘what should I do if something goes wrong?’ Mr Dillon provides real life narratives of situations involving inappropriate ‘care’ and where help was not called for in time. ‘One of the best ways to reduce risk is to have as much information and then plan ahead’ (Dillon, 2014). When girls are in a situation where one of their friends is unwell owing to alcohol, help involves accurate and appropriate assessment and action:

  • Ask a responsible adult to help.
  • Get a bucket for them to hold if they are feeling sick.
  • Do not force them to drink a lot of water. Give them a little bottle of water and tell them to drink when they feel like it.
  • Watch them carefully. This involves sitting them up on a hard-back chair and sitting opposite to them. Tell them to keep their head up and encourage them to talk to you. If they look sleepy click and clap in front of them. If their head falls to one side and they cannot support themselves upright in the chair, seek further help.
  • An unconscious drunk is a medical emergency. Call for help immediately.

The constant message throughout all presentations was to delay the consumption of alcohol for as long as possible.

One topic that hit home for all students and parents was the effect of alcohol on the brain. Fortunately we now know more about the adolescent brain than ever before, and that it is only approximately eighty per cent developed. According to Carr-Gregg (2010), adolescent ‘brains are more susceptible than their adult counterparts to alcohol and other drugs. Binge drinking (drinking more than four standard drinks for females) has been found to result in a smaller hippocampus — the part of the brain involved in information processing, thus loss of potential’. Mr Dillon argues that because of this, females should not drink until twenty-one years of age (once the brain has completed construction). Statistics show there is a significant increase in drinking alcohol from Year 9 to Year 10, when adolescents demand more independence and want to ‘spread their wings’. Delaying their drinking for at least six months at this stage can make a huge difference.

Mr Dillon’s Year 12 presentation focused primarily on schoolies week and the laws surrounding alcohol and driving. In essence he told them to ‘plan ahead, know the risks and be prepared’. Questions posed to the attentive audience included ‘Do you all have a copy of and have you each read your accommodation contract?’ and ‘Do you have an emergency plan?’ One word of advice to all Year 12s attending schoolies: contact (phone or message) your parents twice daily.

The statistics Mr Dillon showed at all presentations demonstrate the young people of Australia, for the most part, are making wise decisions in regard to alcohol and drug use. Over the past four years the trends have been promising. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that fewer twelve to seventeen-year-olds are drinking alcohol and the proportion abstaining from alcohol increased significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from sixty-four per cent to seventy-two per cent). However, while these statistics are indeed comforting for parents, tragic events still do occur. Every weekend one young person dies and in fifty per cent of these cases, it is the result of alcohol (NDSHS, 2013).

According to Mr Dillon, we are on the cusp of significant change. ‘While schools have a role to deliver education about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, it is firmly [the] parents’ role to deliver permissions and consequences for their children. Schools are a channel for information, getting targeted messages to parents, encouraging actions at specific times in their child’s development.’ All parents can really do is be there and do their best. Mr Dillon acknowledges that ‘there are a lot of different circumstances that will dictate how a parent responds to any problem that may arise’. However, in saying this, children still need parents who make the tough decisions, who accept not being ‘liked’, who delay (delay, delay!) for as long as possible any alcohol consumption by their children. There is an expected shift in parenting from a high level of warmth and nurturing up to the age of ten, to a firm, high moral expectation and discipline through to at least sixteen years. Say no to your children regularly, follow up on consequences and encourage discussion about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Put simply, if parents want to prevent or delay risky drinking or illicit drug use they should consider the following:

  • Know where your child is and who she is with.
  • Keep informed and get involved in their lives.
  • Lead by example — you are their most powerful influence.
  • Keep the lines of communication open at all times, make it natural and let them talk. Promote positive norms. The majority of fifteen-year-olds classify themselves as non-drinkers.
  • Negotiate some rules about acceptable behaviour and set boundaries. Make your values absolutely clear and explain your reasons.
  • Tell your children they are great, at every opportunity. Focus on the positives.

Unfortunately no one part of the community can work in isolation. Schools can provide the information and quality pastoral care. Brisbane Girls Grammar School does this through our comprehensive House structure, support from our school Psychologists, Ethics lessons, Health and Physical Education classes and Marrapatta experiences. That said, schools cannot ‘fix’ the problem.

Parents are encouraged to actively engage in their child’s life in and outside of school. Mr Dillon was compassionate and practical in his delivery to our parents. Parents should not be ‘bullied’ by their teenage daughters. They need to hear ‘no’ regularly. The ‘tough love’ style of parenting, which combines warmth and discipline, is the most effective in ensuring against children developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

For more information please visit: www.parentingstrategies.net or visit the Drug and Alcohol Research Training Australia website at www.darta.net.au


Carr-Gregg, M. (2010). When to Really Worry. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books.

Dillon, P. (2009). Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Dillon, P. (2014). Drug Education: Alcohol and Cannabis: What should I do if something goes wrong? [Lecture]. Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane.

Dillon, P. (2014). Drug Education: Teenagers and Alcohol: How much influence do parents really have? [Parent Information Evening]. Brisbane Grammar School, Brisbane.

Australian Government Department of Health. (2013). National Drugs Strategy Household Surveys. Retrieved from www.aihw.gov.au