Three reasons why testimonies have no place in drug use prevention – a fresh new blog post by Guest Expert Caroline Kahiu.
Caroline outlines the three reasons: testimonies in drug use prevention often promote drug use, glamorize drugs, and fail to address the real factors that are crucial for prevention. Caroline also provides insights into which elements matter for evidence-based prevention. And she explains where the practice of testimonies could feature in the response to drug use related problems.

Sharing a real life experience is brave and has been used over the years to warn others about the effects of drug use. This strategy is often referred to as “sharing real life experience” and involves a person in recovery from drug dependency describing their drug use, acts of self-harm and their road to recovery.

Good intentions but potentially bad consequences

Using the approach of personal testimonies from people in recovery is based on the assumption that the targeted audience will listen to a ‘real’ person who has ‘been there’ telling ‘their story’ and that the audience will ‘learn’ from that experience. It is a flawed assumption because testimonies cannot eliminate the reasons why someone starts using drugs and why they continue. Admittedly, often the approach of testimonies is used with best intentions.

Personal testimony may be a powerful tool for hope when speaking to a recovery audience, but as a universal prevention strategy it is inappropriate due to the potential for harm.”

PREVENTION TOOLS. What works, what doesn’t. Washington State Health Care Authority

Nevertheless, the practice has no place in evidence-based drug use prevention. And in the worst case, testimonies can even increase the risk of future drug use related harm. 

Glamorization and other (unintended) consequences instead of prevention 

Testimonial education can be counterproductive and can encourage drug use among susceptible or vulnerable young people.

People in recovery from drug use disorder and addiction risk glamorizing harmful behavior, particularly for young people who might perceive drug use as “cool”. This is because their experience gives them status – after all they are standing in front of people and command the attention of (often large) audiences. In doing so, the recognition and awareness of risks and harm is overshadowed by the story, the person, and the social success.

Even if their story is powerful, personal testimony normalizes drug use by reinforcing the incorrect norm that ‘everybody uses’.”

PREVENTION TOOLS. What works, what doesn’t. Washington State Health Care Authority

Another dimension of glamorizing drug use is that in sharing about their drug use experiences, testimonies run the risk of inadvertently highlighting some subjective benefits of drug use, such as increased confidence or happiness. In a prevention setting where also vulnerable and susceptible young people are (likely) present, these messages are clearly counter-productive and potentially even harmful.

Elements of evidence-based prevention

Finding out what works in drug use prevention has been a challenge. The goal of drug use prevention is to change attitudes and behaviors and to strengthen protective factors, while reducing risk factors.

Latest research shows that there are effective interventions and strategies that recognize when, whom, how, and with whom to intervene to make progress in preventing substance use.

It has been proven that parents, siblings and peers are the most important agents of socialization and influence on substance use prevention amongst young people. We also know that people most at-risk of drug use are dealing with past or present difficulties including trauma, rejection, mental illnesses and developmental or social interaction challenges.

Evidence shows that trained professionals best deliver prevention education programs, incorporate objective facts, focus on social norms, avoid scare tactics and promote healthy lifestyle choices.

A place for testimonies

There is some space for using the practice of testimonies, but not in prevention. In treatment settings amongst people in similar situations testimonies can have an important role.

In the spectrum of treatment, recovery, and support services, sharing real life experiences should be transformed into peer-based recovery support services and mutual aid groups for those who have been impacted by the behavior of the individual with a substance use disorder. Such persons, are qualified to offer peer recovery support by virtue of their ‘shared personal experience’ with substance use disorder, addiction and recovery. 

For further reading

International Prevention Standards

Read the second edition of the WHO-UNODC International Standards on Drug Use Prevention

Universal Prevention Curriculum

Read Movendi International’s resource page about proven and impactful prevention solutions to promote health, well-being and sustainable human development