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Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse

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Enabling: Caring Gone Awry

In the substance abuse field, enabling refers to those ideas, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that unwittingly allow drug problems to occur or worsen. Enabling is seldom done maliciously. No one says, "I think I'll help someone get sicker today," or "I'll support an environment that encourages people to continue dangerous and unhealthy drinking."

Instead, most enabling involves people doing the best they can, armed with inadequate knowledge, and trying to protect, manage, care for, and help another. However, these well-intentioned responses can prevent the user from recognizing the problem, struggling with the consequences, and understanding the need for change.

Enabling occurs in many forms-a police officers failing to ticket an underage drinker, a city council issuing an inordinate number of liquor licenses, a wife calling in sick for her hung over husband, media glamorizing and normalizing heavy drinking, or a parent believing a 14-year-old daughter is too young to have a problem with chemicals, despite evidence to the contrary.

Enabling also happens in college settings. The questions below reflect some of the enabling ideas, attitudes, and behaviors associated with educational systems.

Do you sometimes...

  • Ignore student conversations about alcohol/drugs or inappropriate behaviors, rather than address the issue?
  • Feel concerned about a student's alcohol/drug use but feel reluctant to talk to him/her about it?
  • Believe that alcohol abuse is a stage that young people go through?
  • Joke about student partying and drunkenness?
  • Fail to familiarize yourself with Viterbo's policies related to substances?
  • Believe the responsibility for cleaning up alcohol and other drug problems belongs to the counselor (or the administrators...or the parents...or the police)?
  • Hesitate to confront or refer a troubled student for fear of jeopardizing your relationship?
  • Find yourself able to finish this statement:  "The problems with alcohol and other drugs among our students are less severe than other places because..."?
  • Have unclear standards of academic performance, team behaviors, or work-study employment expectations?
  • Think a given student couldn't possible be involved in drugs because she gets good grades (or, is a "good kid,"...comes from a small town...goes to church...is a hard worker)?
  • Use alcohol/drugs in ways that result in behaviors you are not proud of?
  • Reschedule assignments, classes, work-study projects, practices, tests or papers to accommodate student party times.
  • Believe that most college students drink a lot and party often-always have, always will?

Enabling doesn't cause substance abuse problems. It only strengthens the dynamics that make it easier for such problems to develop and grow. That, of course, is no small thing.  Stopping personal and institutional enabling is a crucial step in the move toward healthy environments characterized by intervention, rather than by confusion, complacency, and complicity.