Tackling substance abuse

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at Shivani.MathurGaiha@lshtm.ac.uk.

A group of class 8 students are quieter than usual towards the end of the day. At the end of the class, a student tells you separately that the entire group uses whitener for substance use.

Substance and drug use are serious issues that not only have psychological impacts but can also impact the students physiologically. This behaviour of students has the potential to negatively impact their entire life going forward. Therefore, as a teacher, it is important you address this issue.

First, you must try to uncover the truth. Is there any evidence that the group of students is using whitener? It’s hard to catch students in the act of abusing whitener. So, can you see excess whitener use by any students? Physical signs of substance use are important to watch out for and some common signs include: smell of whitener, bloodshot eyes, less attention to personal appearance or hygiene, laughing for no reason, avoiding eye contact or secretive mannerism and unusual tiredness. Next, look for mood or what seem like personality changes. It could be that a student or group of students have joined or left a friends’ group, that their communication has dropped in class or with friends, or that they lack interest in activities they previously enjoyed.

Second, it is possible that if some students are using substances like whiteners, there might be other students in other classes who might be doing the same. Discuss the matter with other teachers in the staff room or your head of department to understand more about the school stance on substance use, history of students who were found to be using substances and ways that these situations were tackled. Therefore, while an individual intervention is important, it is also important to have an intervention at a class or school level.

Third, inviting speakers for workshops and discussions around substance abuse would be a good way to address the issue more generally. This will allow students to understand more about substance use, which could act as a deterrent. Using substance abuse as a theme for doing school-based work like poster-making, movie screening will be helpful in addressing the issue without targeting just a few students. There may be a special assembly or World Mental Health Day celebration to mark and showcase their creations.

It is extremely important to observe those students to see if they are repeating the same behaviour in the school. If they are seen indulging in substance abuse again, it is important to address the issue to the management and if needed to their parents as well.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and post doctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counsellor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years experience, currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) apart from carrying on with her consulting work. She is also a registered practitioner of RE-CBT from Ellis Institute, New York. This activity has been conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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