Harm reduction more effective than abstinence for teaching safety

Benroy Chan

By Friday, incoming students under the age of 21 will have to complete part two of Think About It, a required alcohol and healthy relationships education program created by CampusClarity. UT enacted the mandatory program for incoming students starting last year. For those accustomed to abstinence-only education, the program is a different and more effective approach to alcohol, drug and sexual safety.

According to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, colleges must take a certain level of action to reduce the dangers of drugs and violence for a safe learning environment. UT must abide by this law, and Think About It is an effective way for UT to comply.

Transitioning from high school to college exposes students to a plethora of potential risk factors, but asking students to simply abstain from them is unreasonable. Many students consider these activities vital to their college experience, and learning institutions must teach students how to handle these situations.

In recent years, abstinence-only education has been proven to be ineffective in dealing with these potential risk factors. Instead, University Health Services takes a different approach that aims to improve student health and reduce harm, according to Jessica Wagner, manager of the Health Promotion Resource Center.

“In general, harm reduction is the approach my office takes, and it is a proven strategy in college health,” Wagner said. “Abstinence from sex [and alcohol] is not a strategy that is appropriate for this audience.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services funds sexual education programs designed to target teen pregnancy with effective abstinence education strategies. However, Texas’ teen pregnancy rates reflect the failure of this approach. In 2013, Texas had the fourth highest teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. despite receiving $5,362,001 in grants for abstinence education in 2012.

Harm-reduction programs are key in reducing the damages of risk factors, and UT’s use of Think About It effectively equips students with the tools and knowledge to handle risky situations. If learning institutions want to lower the risks of drugs and sex, they need to leave behind the fear mongering approaches common in abstinence-only education.

Chan is a journalism freshman from Sugar Land. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.