Gilda Maria Pompeia, 28, works in Sao Paulo, developing drug prevention courses for high school teachers.
Pompeia says she felt shocked as a young schoolteacher by the authoritarian way in which many teachers related to students. Through her more candid relationship to students, Pompeia became interested in the reasons why some used drugs. Their discussions inspired Pompeia's efforts to bring the issues more into the open and to dispel prejudices and false notions about drug use and drug users.
Gilda Pompeia finds perhaps the most important technique in teaching drug awareness to high school teachers is encouraging them to put themselves in their students' place, try to see the world from an adolescent's perspective."As adults working with teenagers, we can get to know the difference between our spoken words and how we live our lives," Pompeia says. "We find ourselves reverting to that old expression, 'Do what I say, don't do what I do'."High school teachers who take her drug awareness course discuss society's prejudices -- and their own -- toward drug use. They often become aware of rigid attitudes that block their understanding of students and of drug use.An example is the uncomfortable responses she senses when she suggests that teenagers sometimes use drugs merely to experience pleasure. "People don't see drugs as pleasure but as sin," Pompeia says. Adults commonly assume that a pot smoker is also a thief or has deep psychological problems."I keep asking if this is envy of other people's pleasure. I feel a great resistance, a need to justify the use of drugs as related to problems, not pleasure," Pompeia says.She encourages orienting teenagers toward healthy pleasures rather than condemning them, repressing them or assuming they use drugs to escape problems.Pompeia recently gave teachers in her course the same questionnaire she has been giving to high school students, asking, for example, which of the following substances do you consider drugs, or what do you think of people who use drugs."The results show that teachers don't know the world of students," Pompeia says.They explore that world in the course, which has increased from 30 hours to 40 to encompass more material. Pompeia says the course is not a fixed set of ideas but fluid and dynamic, adapting to new insights and information. Drug use is not a disease, she says, but a very subjective cultural and social phenomenon.Besides moralism, another challenge for Pompeia's project is the decay in Brazil's educational system that has resulted from decades of neglect aggravated in recent years by economic crisis. Teachers receive low salaries and suffer lack of prestige despite their college educations."Most are so discouraged they just want to fulfill the minimum obligation and go home and watch the soap opera," Pompeia says. Few feel motivated to investigate social issues such as drug use that affect their students' lives.But Pompeia says she cannot put off pursuing her project in hopes Brazil's education system improves. "I'd be waiting the rest of my life," she says with a laugh.School systems are beginning to solicit Pompeia's course, and she is enlisting help from teachers who have completed it. Police in Sao Paulo also have invited her assistance. Police there have long offered a drug awareness course based more on moral and criminal aspects of drug use. But they now are asking Pompeia to share her more open approach with them, a sign that attitudes might be changing.Brazilian media and Brazil's new government have given some attention to drug use among young people, but Pompeia feels like issues still go largely ignored. Most written material on the subject is published in English or French, reflecting a lack of interest among Brazilian researchers.For Pompeia, the most encouraging moments are those when teachers studying her course do not want it to end, are not satisfied and ask to continue beyond its 40 hours.
While drug use among young people in Brazil is widespread, awareness and understanding of drugs is not, much less of the social and psychological context that leads to drug use. Few programs exist on drug use and prevention. Generally, any discussion of drugs is automatically consigned as something to do with the military, police, criminality, etc. Indeed, when, as a young teacher, Pompeia first tried to engage a speaker at her school, the school's director rejected her idea of inviting a psychologist to talk about drug use as absurd, saying that she should instead invite someone from the military.The federal government's drug laws deal far more with repression and treatment of criminals rather than prevention. Few initiatives exist that attempt to deal with the issue at the level of the schools. Because of this generalized silence and ignorance, Brazil's streets are swelled with drug addicts, many of them children, who have no place to seek help and guidance even if they want it.
Pompeia proposes reaching out to adolescents, an age group with a higher incidence of drug use, through their schoolteachers who have looked at the issues in non-judgmental ways during the 40-hour course.The course is organized into sessions that explore the concept of what a drug is, classification of drugs, history of drug use, family and group dynamics and case studies discussed by a psychiatrist, negative aspects of anti-campaigns, legal and criminal aspects discussed by lawyers and police and prevention proposals of each participant. Debate and open discussion are encouraged.The course aims to help teachers adapt their understanding of adolescent drug use to personalized prevention techniques within the classroom.Pompeia works through the non-profit Center of Pharmacodependency and Prevention Studies she helped found in Sao Paulo. The Center sponsors the course called Drug Use Prevention for School-Age Youth, taught to public and private high school teachers. Local governments and school districts throughout the state of Sao Paulo have hosted or requested information about the course.