By Seher Shafiq, Parent Action on Drugs
On March 7th 2016, Parent Action on Drugs (PAD) and HC Link hosted a webinar titled “Effective peer programming on substance use for the transitional years”. Peer education is defined as “the teaching or sharing of health information, values and behaviours between individuals with shared characteristics”.
To my knowledge, PAD has the longest standing peer education programs (in the area of substance use) in all of Canada! The numbers don’t lie: over the past 30 years, PAD’s peer education programs have reached 3000 classes, trained 10,000 peer educators, and had approximately 90,000 youth involved overall. Having done a backgrounder on peer education effectiveness before the webinar, I was excited to hear the diverse, real life experiences from our webinar presenters.
Suzanne Witt-Foley (Consultant, PAD/HC Link) and Patricia Scott-Jeoffroy (Consultant, PAD/HC Link) opened the webinar by noting that it’s important for educators to focus on ‘health literacy’, and that PAD’s Challenges, Beliefs and Changes (CBC) program has information that is balanced, accurate and promotes skills practice. Patricia did an overview of PAD’s peer education programs, recognizing that the Masonic Foundation of Ontario has provided almost 30 years of support to these programs.
Next up was a panel presentation from diverse voices that have been involved in the CBC program. Both Allison Haldenby (Guidance Counsellor, East Elgin Secondary School) and Jacky Allan (Public Health Nurse, Elgin-St. Thomas Public Health Department) emphasized the importance of a collaborative approach to coordinating a peer education in schools, and discussed how they worked with school nurses, public health units, elementary schools, high schools, and students to organize, promote and deliver the CBC program.
As a Youth Addictions Counsellor at the Canadian Mental Health Association of Muskoka Parry Sound, Brittany Cober provided an interesting mental health perspective. Brittany mentioned that she often notices the youth in peer education programs form an “automatic bond with each other” in a way that they don’t with adults, and this is what makes peer education programs so successful. Brittany was speaking anecdotally from her own personal experience, but I couldn’t help but think how similar her experience was to the research on peer education effectiveness. For example, a 2009 study on peer education found that “peer educators were...seen as very credible by the majority of the participants...with the experimental group significantly more likely to find the peer educator more credible than the control group”.
The most interesting part of this webinar was that the audience was able to hear from two students who participated in the CBC program for three years: Jack Gaudette and Kennedie Close from East Elgin Secondary. Jack shared a powerful story about how he was “pushed around” in elementary school and was worried about starting high school. However, high school wasn’t what he expected – in a good way! Being involved in the peer education program helped both Jack and Kennedie “fit in”, get involved, and have fun. Jack and Kennedie keep participating in the program each year because it’s “been a blast every year”, and I’m sure their enthusiasm motivates other students to join the program. Having helped develop PAD’s youth engagement model as part of our strategic plan, I was particularly happy to see that youth voices were represented in this webinar!
Overall, it was a great webinar that illustrated the importance of taking a collaborative, multi-sectoral approach to a preventative health intervention. With drug policy staying high on our new government’s policy agenda, I am sure PAD’s peer education programs will be even more important moving forward.