As the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), I interact with a variety of audiences, including scientists, prevention and treatment specialists, and the general public. But one particularly important audience (and often the most difficult to reach) is the American teenager. Getting our messages to teens is more urgent than ever. After a decade-long decline in teen drug use, the overall rates appear to have stabilized and have even started to creep upward for some drugs of abuse. The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey shows, for example, significant increases in daily marijuana use across all three grades surveyed (8th, 10th and 12th). Abuse of prescription medications remains unacceptably high for teens; six of the top 10 illicit drugs abused by 12th-graders in the past year were prescribed or purchased over the counter.
To reach more teens with our messages, four years ago, NIDA held its first live web “chat” between scientists and teens from schools across the country. Forty NIDA scientists and staff sat at rows of computers and answered teens’ questions about drugs. We anticipated about a thousand questions but instead received more than 8,000 questions in the first hour, temporarily disabling our system. By the end of the day, teens had submitted more than 36,000 questions to the Chat.
This overwhelming response clearly demonstrated to us that teens have an acute interest in speaking with scientists about drugs, perhaps because they are seeking unbiased, factual answers. Today, our annual “Drug Facts Chat Day” is held every fall, with even more experts participating, including those from other National Institutes of Health entities. Continual improvements have made the experience more engaging and allowed us to better manage the demand.
Building on this successful outreach strategy and the call for similar local events, in November 2010, NIDA expanded the scientist-to-teen exchange around the country by launching National Drug Facts Week with federal and private-sector partners. The first year stimulated more than 100 drug abuse education events nationwide, which connected teens with scientists in their communities. The week also included an innovative contest sponsored by MusiCares and the Grammy Foundation, which encouraged teens to submit music videos, lyrics or compositions celebrating healthy and creative living or accurately portraying the dangers of drug abuse. The top three winners were flown to Los Angeles for a rehearsal of the 2010 Grammy awards show and had the opportunity to meet their musical heroes backstage. This contest was held again this year and the winner will be announced as part of NIDA’s second annual Drug Facts Chat Week, beginning October 31.
Those who wish to design and hold events in their communities can register on NIDA’s website to receive booklets and web links intended to guide their efforts, including eliciting the participation of experts and other supporters (see “How To” toolkit at drugfactsweek.drugabuse.gov).
It is important for teens to see their community embrace healthy living messages, and it is heartening that participation has already surpassed that of last year. Events can be as simple as assembling teens to take NIDA’s National Drug IQ Challenge or to listen to the winners of the music contest. Visit the National Drug Facts Week website today to help plan an event for this special week.