Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Paul Tondera.

Surely, every single one of you has encountered substance or behavioural dependencies in one form or another throughout your lives. These dependencies, in their strongest form called addictions, are extremely frequent and can occur with respect to a broad spectrum of substances and behaviours. Basically, everything that is fun can become addictive under certain circumstances.

“everything that is fun can become addictive under certain circumstances”

But let’s take a step back and clarify what we are talking about with addiction by quoting a smart person. “Addiction may be defined as a process whereby a behavior, that can function both to produce pleasure and to provide relief from internal discomfort, is employed in a pattern characterized by (1) recurrent failure to control the behavior (powerlessness) and (2) continuation of the behavior despite significant negative consequences (unmanageability).” (Goodman, 1990, p. 1404) So, we typically talk about an addiction when a behaviour that was initially perceived positively has become difficult to quit, and at the same time has started having negative consequences. At the level of the brain, this transformation represents a change within the mesolimbic system, from the normal pathway responsible for reward to the activation of regions associated with automatic behaviour and habit formation (Chen, Hopf, & Bonci, 2010). In psychological terms, this change is represented further by a shift from “liking” to “wanting”.

There seems to be no clear line between pleasure and addiction. But, you might wonder, why the heck am I telling you this? Bear with me, after examining some of the circumstances that foster addictive behaviour, I will clarify this.

“But, you might wonder, why the heck am I telling you this?”

The Prefrontal Cortex & Puberty

How do we regulate our behaviour? How do we suppress immediate impulses? And how do we resist short-term reward in favour of long-term achievements? The main regulatory system responsible for these tasks is the prefrontal cortex, the brain area located right behind our forehead. In comparison to other animals, the prefrontal cortex in us humans is surprisingly large, and thought to be responsible for many uniquely human attributes, such as abstract thinking, planning, and the ability to suppress impulses. Furthermore, it is the brain area that develops the latest, reaching far into puberty.

Puberty is characterised by behavioural changes based on an increased focus on peer evaluations and sought separation from the parental generation. As a result, clearly segregated forms of expression manifest while established rules and norms are disobeyed. Combining the pursued behavioural changes and the late prefrontal cortex development leads to a better understanding of the increased vulnerability to engage in illicit substance use, but also other hazardous behaviours, during adolescence (Davidson, Grigorenko, Boivin, Rapa, & Stein, 2015).

“many countries lack mandatory and systematic psychological education in high school”

Putting the Pieces Together: Psychological Education in High-School

This knowledge is widely spread throughout the academic world; however, it barely reaches adolescents! One of the reasons for this is that many countries lack mandatory and systematic psychological education in high school, such as the USA, Germany, and the Netherlands (Keith, Hammer, Blair-Broeker, & Ernst, 2013). Yet, it is essential for youth to possess an interpretational framework of puberty so they can understand what they are going through. Without a framework to interpret their experiences and to guide their behaviour, adolescents will quickly feel alone, confused, and hopeless. From this position, it is more likely to engage in perilous behaviours, such as suicide, drug abuse, and criminal actions.

There are many traps when growing up, especially concerning one’s own thinking and behaviour. I chose to demonstrate my point by talking about addictive behaviour and the developing brain during adolescence because, as several studies have shown, addictions with an onset in adolescence usually have the most devastating consequences (Bonomo, 2005; Schuster, Hoeppner, Evins & Gilman, 2016). Therefore, it is highly irresponsible to exclude proper psychological education from the high school curriculum, especially with respect to such relevant topics.

“it is highly irresponsible to exclude proper psychological education from the high school curriculum, especially with respect to such relevant topics”

Certainly, psychological education for adolescents can be tricky. Giving adolescents the advice to stay away from addictive substances, for instance, might have precisely the opposite effect when phrased authoritatively. In contrast, the aim should be to provide adolescents non-judgmentally with theoretical knowledge about psychological subjects and thereby handing them over the tools to shape their own future from an educated and self-responsible stand (Mosher, et al., 1971). Already twenty years ago, the American Psychological Association started to formulate national standards for high-school psychological education (National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, 2011). However, psychological education is still the exception in high-schools and if available, it is an elective. While guidelines for psychological education in high-school exist, what is missing is the implementation of structured and mandatory psychology courses.

As adolescence marks a lifespan of increased reflection, search for meaning, and lookout for a solid and informed stand in life, it is the most suited time to provide psychological education! We should give youth the tools duly to make informed decisions to build their own life in a successful manner. A good starting point is the implementation of psychological teaching on a broad scale into our educational systems! Thereby, I am pleading for nothing less than cutting clinical psychologist’s jobs by starting to employ psychology teachers!

References:

Bonomo, Y. (2005). Early onset of drinking increases alcohol use in adulthood. Evidence-Based Mental Health, 8(4), 98-98. doi:10.1136/ebmh.8.4.98

Chen, B. T., Hopf, F. W., & Bonci, A. (2010). Synaptic plasticity in the mesolimbic system. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1187(1), 129-139. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05154.x

Davidson, L. L., Grigorenko, E. L., Boivin, M. J., Rapa, E., & Stein, A. (2015). A focus on adolescence to reduce neurological, mental health and substance-use disability. Nature, 527(7578). doi:10.1038/nature16030

Goodman, A. (1990). Addiction: Definition and implications. Addiction, 85(11), 1403-1408. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.1990.tb01620.x

Keith, K. D., Hammer, E. Y., Blair-Broeker, C. T., & Ernst, R. M. (2013). High School Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 40(4), 311-317. doi:10.1177/0098628313501044

Mosher, R. L., Sprinthall, N. A., Atkins, V. S., Dowell, R. C., Greenspan, B. M., Griffin, A. H., & Mager, G. C. (1971). Psychological education: A means to promote personal development during adolescence. The Counseling Psychologist, 2(4), 3-82. doi:10.1177/001100007100200402

National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/education/k12/national-standards.aspx

Schuster, R. M., Hoeppner, S. S., Evins, A. E., & Gilman, J. M. (2016). Early onset marijuana use is associated with learning inefficiencies. Neuropsychology, 30(4), 405-415. doi:10.1037/neu0000281

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Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash (free download)