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Scared Straight: Does This Method Decrease Teen Drug Use?

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

March 8, 2019

If your teen is suffering from a drug use problem and is committing criminal activities, you may be tempted to force them into one of these “scared straight” programs. However, it’s important to understand what they’ll be experiencing in those programs and whether or not that treatment will truly help them recover.

“Beyond Scared Straight” Illustrates The Popularity Of These Programs

“Beyond Scared Straight” is a highly popular television program on A&E. It features teens who are suffering from behavioral and drug abuse problems. These teens are taken to a prison, where they spend time among real inmates. Here, the inmates confront them with horror stories about their lives in an attempt to frighten the teens into better behavior.

Despite criticism from drug rehabilitation and behavioral experts, the show is now entering its third season. The protests around the show claim that it portrays a technique that is ineffective, dangerous, and problematic for troubled teens. They say it doesn’t address the underlying problems of addiction (such as depression or bipolar disorder) and can actually worsen these problems.

However, that doesn’t stop many parents from watching the show and coming to the conclusion that “scared straight” programs are a quick fix solution to a complex issue, especially since the show highlights so many success stories.

The Typical Scared Straight Program

The goal of a typical scared straight program is noble: to get teens to quit committing crimes and using drugs. For many parents, that is a dream come true. And the projected effectiveness time of a typical program (anywhere from a few days to a week) makes it an enticing option. Who wouldn’t want to have their teen drug-free that quickly?

The theory behind scared straight programs also seems fairly sound. The idea is that swift and severe punishment for unfortunate behaviors will quickly deter teens from continuing drug use and criminal activities. In a typical program, teens are taken on a tour through a prison to meet inmates. Here, inmates will actively engage with teens in an attempt to scare them.

This is the hardest part of the process: teens will be berated, screamed at, threatened, and in some cases, even locked in a cell. Spending time as a real inmate is designed to give teens a taste of where their life may be headed if they continue to use drugs. In some harsher programs, teens may even be placed in an open coffin, lowered into a grave, and treated as if they were dead.

These treatments likely feel overtly harsh or even frightening to most parents. However, that is the whole philosophy behind scared straight programs: teens must truly feel that the danger they are placing themselves in with their behavior. Without that, they’ll never quit using drugs or committing crimes.

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But Are They Effective?

Beyond the positive results shown on “Beyond Scared Straight” and other similar shows, evidence seems to be against these programs. For example, a series of researchers ran nine trials on these programs to help decide if they were effective. They tested juvenile drug use and criminality and the way it was affected by various treatment options, including scared straight programs.

What they found was surprising: scared straight programs were actually less effective at treating drug use and criminal problems than simply doing nothing at all. The problem lay in the fact that they didn’t really understand the way that deterrence works in the mind. Deterrence is only successful if the negative stimulus occurs almost immediately after the behavior it’s designed to punish.

Think of a dog that has an accident on your rug. Rubbing its nose in the mess hours later will do little to deter its behavior because its mind won’t understand why it is being punished. And while your teen is obviously smarter than a dog, their unconscious mind will work similarly. Simply exposing them to negative stimulus (such as screaming prisoners) won’t truly deter many of them from drug use.

Yes, it may scare a few teens away, but the more heavily addicted will fail to see the connection. Some of them may see prisoners as people who “made mistakes” or who “got stupid” and got caught. They’ll tell themselves that they will avoid that problem by acting “smart.” As a result, they won’t feel fear towards the prisoners: only contempt.

In Fact, Scared Straight May Encourage Crime And Drug Use

The controversy surrounding the popularity of scared straight programs is often countered by proponents of the program claiming that it still decreases crime. They claim that while it might not actually cure mental health disorders or force a teen to quit doing drugs, it often scares them into transitioning into more comprehensive programs that do help.

Unfortunately, these claims are countered by the finding of a Cochrane review. These reviews are often considered the best way to measure the success of any type of treatment. It studied various teens who had gone through the scared straight program and found that these teens were actually more likely to commit crimes and use drugs once they finished. How much more likely? 68-71 percent.

Why this increase in criminal and drug use activities? The answer isn’t clear, but the fact that these programs don’t actually address the underlying concerns that influence addiction may have something to do with it. If a troubled teen who suffers from depression goes to a scared straight program, lying in coffins and being treated like a corpse isn’t likely to help cure that depression. In fact, it’s more likely to increase their depression and their reliance on drug use.

Are There Alternatives To These Programs?

Thankfully, scared straight isn’t the only type of anti-drug program available for teens. The classic intervention and rehabilitation method remains the most popular and, arguably, the most successful. Here, teens are faced with their addiction by loved ones, detoxified, and then treated for physical and mental concerns that have led to their addiction.

However, there are even more alternatives. Many teens react well to religious or spiritual intervention. Often, teens that are using drugs feel a lack of love in their life and the concept that a greater being loves them often inspires many to quit using. Programs funded by the Catholic church are available, as are more community-based groups.

Wilderness rehabilitation programs are often highly successful with many teens. In these programs, they are placed in the wild with a group of other teens. Together, with the help of drug rehab experts, they work together to survive in an unfamiliar environment. They also undergo detoxification programs, go on wilderness hikes, exercise, and discuss their problems.

Do these programs offer the “quick fix” solution that scared straight promises? No. But they also lack the fear-inducing effect that may not actually be effective in treating addiction. Instead, they are more concerned with treating your teen in a kind and healing fashion, one that is designed to cure them of addiction holistically, rather than through terror.

Learning More About Teenager Rehabilitation

The ineffectiveness of scared straight programs and the effectiveness of less severe options has done little to decrease the popularity of shows like “Beyond Scared Straight.” However, you now understand why these programs are simply not worth it. If you need more help to choose a rehabilitation program for your teen, please contact us at RehabCenter.net. We can help you get your teen in a program that’s right for their needs.

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