SEL for Prevention: Substance Use & COVID-19

The pandemic has created or aggravated mental health concerns, particularly in young people. The long-term effects are unknown, but based on what we know from traumatic events in the past, we should be concerned about current and future substance use problems.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can give students lifelong skills that can help them make healthier choices. When schools incorporate SEL for prevention, students can learn positive coping strategies that will follow them throughout their K-12 journey and beyond.

Mental health, substance use, and COVID-19

Many people who develop substance use disorders are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa. Mental health conditions related to COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting certain populations, including young adults.

“The isolation of the pandemic has created friction for many teens who have a strong desire to be with their friends. It is developmentally appropriate to be focused on social engagement during the period of adolescent development. Friendships provide a significant coping resource for teens as they navigate the world with more independence and responsibility, preparing them to launch from home. Additionally, within the context of a pandemic, it can be difficult to distinguish your own individual experience as significant when everyone around you is distressed to some degree,” says Ashley Houchin, PsyD, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works with many adolescent patients who have experienced trauma.

Since pandemic-related social distancing began and in many ways removed the coping resource friendships provide, the frequency of adolescent alcohol and cannabis use has increased. Early data from the CDC indicates that the pandemic fueled the drug addiction crisis as overdose deaths spiked.

Pre-pandemic, about half of high school students reported using substances such as alcohol and marijuana. More research is needed to determine how much that has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, but schools shouldn’t wait to take action. By implementing research-based SEL programs, such as Kognito’s Friend2Friend simulation, schools can help prevent substance abuse by promoting personal and social skills in 6th- to 12th-grade students.

Why are students at risk?

The American Psychological Association sounded an alarm about a national mental health crisis that “could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” The organization’s 2020 survey shows that the potential long-term consequences of pandemic-related stress and trauma are most serious for youth and young adults ages 13-23.

Over 80% of Gen Z teens who are in school report they have been negatively impacted due to pandemic-related school closures.

Source: American Psychological Association, The 2020 Stress in America™ survey

Dr. Houchin explains that people often turn to substances to cope with trauma because it numbs pain, and the reason teens are especially prone to use alcohol and other drugs is because of social pressure. That social pressure, in addition to students not having as many supportive resources readily available, can make substance use an attractive way to alleviate emotional pain.

COVID-19 is a unique experience because it can’t be tied to one specific event. Instead of one traumatic moment, it’s a chronic trauma that everyone has experienced differently. Some students’ families may be experiencing financial stress. Some are grieving over lost loved ones. Many are grappling with the effects of social isolation.

Although COVID-19 is unlike anything educators have faced, we can turn to research on how young people have responded to traumatic events in the past to forecast some possible responses — including an increase in substance use. Early evidence shows that young people are using alcohol and other drugs at a higher rate in response to COVID-19, and they need strong social and emotional skills to help them make healthier choices.

“It may be difficult for teens to get help if they aren’t making it known that they need support, but it might also be a challenge for them to recognize they need support in the first place,” Dr. Houchin says.

SEL for prevention is proven to be effective

When adolescents strengthen their social-emotional skills, their risk of substance abuse decreases.

As the recently updated definition of SEL by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states, SEL can help young people “develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” SEL for prevention can be a powerful way to target skills such as self awareness, problem solving, and self control.

Does SEL for prevention actually work? According to research, yes. In one long-term study, high-risk children were taught social and self-regulation skills. This early intervention led to a significantly lower probability of substance use problems by age 25. They also had a reduced risk of delinquency and arrests.

Friend2Friend, Kognito’s online SEL learning curriculum on alcohol and other drugs, has a large focus on goal-setting and allows students to think about and exercise achieving their goals based on personal values and what motivates that student. Using an evidence-based approach and the power of virtual simulation, learners have the opportunity to practice social and emotional skills in a safe environment.

Friend2Friend SEL Solutions

Kognito’s SEL for prevention suite supports a skills-based approach to core SEL topics for grades 6 to 12. Through immersive interactive practice, students learn the social-emotional tools to better navigate real-life situations.

Help your students navigate this challenging time and prevent them from developing long-term substance use problems. Learn more about Friend2Friend and request a demo today.

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