Wanted: Substance Abuse Education Curriculum

School Counselor Leadership~

School Counselors provide guidance

Like a harbor light, school counselors provide much-needed guidance.

Over ten million members of The Learning First Alliance include the likes of the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation, state education alliances, and every leading education association out there. LFA is dedicated to improving public education, and has awarded one very special person every year since 2002 as School Counselor of the Year. The School Counselor of the Year and the the award finalists and semi-finalists attend a ceremony in their honor at the White House each year.

Learning First Alliance Deputy Director Anne O’Brien blogs regularly on topics adjunct to LFA’s precepts. A particular article she wrote for the Edutopia website in 2013, Celebrating School Counselors, is about the White House award ceremony. In that article, O’Brien introduces some of the mainstays of school counselor duties:

“Counselors often lead a school’s work in conflict resolution, and can play an important role in substance abuse education…They can play a huge role in building the culture and climate of a school. They…do much…to remove barriers to learning and help students succeed.”

O’Brien’s article tells about 2013 School Counselor of the Year Mindy Willard at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Arizona. “She has created a counseling program that…focuses on guidance lessons.”

School Counselor Ratio

Although the White House has recognized the important duties of school counselors since 2002, O’Brien points out in 2013 that nationwide, one in five schools completely lacked a school counselor, and in schools that did have them, each counselor averages 500 students they alone are expected to guide to success.

To catch you up to more recent statistics, I found an article published on September 16, 2016 in The Atlantic online magazine. The Undervaluing of School Counselors, an article by James S. Murphy, tells us the national average at the time of his more recent article was 491 students per counselor.

Not a lot of progress in three years, especially considering the fast growth in substance abuse deaths despite the US Surgeon General declaring heroin addiction an epidemic back in July of 2015. Many of the growing numbers of addicted are students, while many are young adults who found themselves in even less happy circumstances after they left school.

School Counselors guide

Without guidance, young people don’t learn how to make good decisions.

If school counselors often provide the guidance that supports conflict resolution and substance abuse education, and these lead to the quality of the culture and climate of a school that can take students to successful life outcomes, then why does there continue to be a dearth of school counselors nationwide?    

Substance Abuse Statistics

It’s no secret that school counselors come face-to-face daily with many problems posed by kids who make poor decisions and engage in risky behavior.  My heart goes out to teachers and school counselors at the front lines because of numbers like this:

  • 80% of new heroin users are under the age of 26 (an old statistic for which I cannot find an update other than that younger and younger ages are becoming statistics).
  • In 2013, the Denver, Colorado Coroner’s Office reported 28% of all deaths in that city were heroin-related. (Updates for city and county heroin death statistics are also hard to come by.) 
  • It is expected the US 2016 death number related to heroin overdose will push upwards of 65,000 from 55,000 the previous year.

I know these numbers because I have studied the problem. I used to ignore it until it hit home. One of my sons had gone down that dark path of drug addiction, yet with certain support he turned his life around and became a champion in his field. I thought all was well.

Four years later my other son, who did not have the same support his older brother did because programs were dismantled or overloaded, died with a heroin needle in his arm. That’s when I started researching the heroin problem.

Identifying Risk Students


It’s a huge risk when we don’t teach kids to think positively to improve their problem-solving skills.

It seems with the statistics I listed above, parents, teachers and counselors must consider that the large amount of exposure to risky behavior today has put ALL of their charges  “at-risk.” The good news is there are strategies, or techniques, for swiftly and easily improving the culture and climate at schools despite ever-tightening school budgets. These can be used by parents, teachers, school counselors and of course, the students for whom they are intended.

The Importance of Positive Values

What needs to change in at-risk situations is values. Because of the human propensity toward negativity, good values require positive guidance, which requires a structure that promotes the cultivation of high values.

Negative students, and negative people in general, don’t know that negativity can be overcome with positivity. They are entrenched in their negativity and usually they would rather be right than be happy. I admit I was like this most of my life. It was a habit in the way that I regarded life itself. I valued complaining because I believed most problems were hopeless. Besides, commiserating can be fun. We stupidly like drama–until we smarten up.

Negative people don’t know they are promoting their own negative circumstances with their focus. They are unhappy because they focus on what’s wrong while they are clueless that they could turn things around with a positive focus. They don’t know any better that they are hindering their own advancement with their negativity. They don’t know they have poorer brain function while thinking negative thoughts, and good brain function while thinking positive thoughts.

But positivity is not what comes naturally to us humans, given our survival mechanism of fight-or-flight. Just like all relationships, from marriage to countries engaging in war, a school’s culture and climate depends on how happy or unhappy its students are. The trick is to override our negative thoughts with positive.

The Impact of Positive Attitude

Despite the overwhelming numbers of students who veer off course, parents, teachers and school counselors have witnessed kids who have kept a positive course within the at-risk environment. Many risk students do become successful. How? From what I’ve learned in my journey with my children as well as in my personal journey, I believe the primary reason is that successful kids–and adults–have learned how to be happy regardless of circumstances.

positive is happy and smart

Positive thoughts make a smart brain, and a smart brain can solve problems!

They are those who have faith that things are always working out well, no matter how bad things might look. Kids acquire this attitude from the adults who guide them. With an attitude of happiness in living their life, they are empowered by knowing they have some control and can solve problems in ways that make their life better. They can solve problems because a happy brain is a smart brain.

They don’t lose hope, and are inspired to add value to their lives instead of the temporary high of using drugs. They learn they can mitigate and even turn around the negative effects of their problems. They can even use this to turn an addiction around. That’s how happiness leads to success. My thriving son did it by living two things he learned: how to think positively and discovering and living his passion. These are two of three important things I live by and teach.

What’s Next?

My next blog features 3 Things Every Parent, Teacher and School Counselor Can Do to Help Kids Stay Positive and Succeed. The title of the blog is, Found: A Substance Abuse Education Curriculum. 

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP for my blog posts to conveniently show up in your email about every 10 days.

Wishing you your best possible life,

Rori O’Hara

Rori O’Hara earned the coveted Youth Speaker University Speaker Certification. She is also a workshop facilitator and author. Her focus is to expose kids, youth and young adults to proven techniques for success that will sustain them throughout their lives. To ask her for a media interview or to speak at an event, please email her directly at RoriOhara@SuccessSystemsInstitute.com


Smith, L. (2013, October 21). Heroin Use, Deaths On The Rise In Middle Class America – CBS Denver. CBS Denver. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://denver. cbslocal.com/2013/10/21/heroin-usedeaths-on-the-rise- in-middle-class-america/

Ph.D., B. M. (2013, May 7). Shyness Is Nice. Stop Fighting Your Negative Thoughts. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shyness-is- nice/201305/stop-fighting-your-negative-thoughts

Newberg, A. B., & Waldman, M. R. (2012). Words can change your brain: 12 conversation strategies to build trust, resolve conflict, and increase intimacy. New York: Hudson Street Press.


  1. Hi There,

    Your article is super important and engaging. It contains very valuable information on a crucial subject.
    I totally agree with you that positive thinking is the key to a better living.
    Keep up the inspirational work!

  2. HI Rori, what a very passionate and informative article you have. My mom is a Guidance Counselor and I can relate to your description that their profession is very challenging with the present social situation. I guess I was a little bit lucky to have a mom who is in the field and how she discreetly shared the positive reinforcement strategy to us without overstating the obvious. As an adult now, I tend to think why I have this positive outlook in life even in the face of adversaries. Slowly I am understanding that I was brought up this way, to see the goodness in harsh times, to see the light in the darkness. Though some say that soon it will be a liability because others may abuse my kindness or my generally positive outlook, I counter it by saying that I still see darkness and still feel sadness, like everyone else, it’s just that I channel my energy on finding a solution rather than succumbing to despair. Again, thank you Rori for this. You have such a beautiful story to share and inspired me more. Thank you again.

    • Thank you, JR, for your validation of what I am teaching. You are very fortunate to have been raised in a positive environment. If we can only reach enough people with enough positivity, I believe society will reach a tipping point. Then we will have very little darkness to consider and positive solutions will be the new way of society around the world. Idealism? Yes! Possibility? YES!

  3. Thank you for this. I will be 60 this year. I have two grown children ages 36 and 31. Both of them have spent nearly their entire adult lives in the land of meth. And while school counselors and parents do need additional support, I would like to point out another area of concern. My children were diagnosed ADHD when Ritalin was the only drug prescribed for the condition. Adderall soon followed. My kids were taking a mind altering substance from a very early age. Their bodies developed and they matured into young adults under the influence of a mind altering substance. As they entered high school there was a period during which medical researchers were discovering how this legal
    Meth was havinf adverse effects on millions of kids. The doctor treating my children weaned them off, much to my curiosity because a few critical years earlier I was told this was a lifelong condition. Well – the whole story is that they never weaned from it. Meth was available to them on the streets and once they got ahold of their first dose they were literally back in their own reality. It wasn’t the teachers or the counselors fault. It was not their fault. As the mother I blame myself for not realizing there was no adequate scientific support for the doctor to diagnose my kids with a disorder that was treated with methamphetamines. And now we are left with a generation of addicts – some who graduated to heroin and other drugs. Some who still can only find any sense of normalcy without the meth. And my heart cries out for them all.

    • Carole, my boys were practically raised on meth living primarily in the town that is still a main US distribution center, so your story is familiar to me. If having meth around them wasn’t enough, one of my sons was forced to take Ritalin to attend school–from the second grade! My book will be published soon, titled, Hero v. Heroin: A Mother’s Stories and Strategies for Parents, Teachers, School Counselors, Youth, Teens, Young Adults and Addicts. My thriving son overcame his challenge with drugs by living two things he was fortunate to learn: how to think positively and discovering and living his passion. There are so many factors, including the way society is geared to educate and discipline, that play into this epidemic. I pray your kids can overcome their challenges. It starts with recognizing they can. Wishing you and them positive change and blessed lives.

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