What it means to listen

  • We should design societal systems that facilitate communication as a preventative measure against drug abuse

Jun 30, 2017-

Earlier in the week on June 26, the world observed the international day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking. The day exists as a reminder to get the conversation around drug abuse going, or, in some cases, started. This year’s theme was: ‘Listen First: Listening to children and youth is the first step to help them grow healthy and safe’. The message is as literal as it sounds—listening and empathising with young kids and adolescents is a good preventative measure against their potential drug abuse. 

This is especially relevant in a country like Nepal where open communication is typically stifled by cultural barriers, and often worsened by generational gaps. For lack of suitable emotional outlets and counselling, young individuals frequently resort to drugs. In fact, this happens so often that today an estimated 1 percent of Nepalis aged 15-64 are hard-drug-users, with a large proportion in the 20-24 age demographic. Of course, it is easy to say listen to young people, and shift all accountability towards guardians or other stakeholders. But without a proper understanding of what it means to listen and how to go about doing so, this approach cannot be effective. It is similar to suggesting “poor people need to work harder” as the solution to income inequality. Systematic design that facilitates and fosters proposed solutions—whether it be to “listen more” or “work harder”—is often the right solution. In this article, we want to discuss what it means to listen to young people, and comment on ways to design societal systems that facilitate communication and listening as potential preventative measures against drug abuse.  

Being present and mindful

Listening with empathy and care is vital to preventing drug use. Being non-judgemental and earning the trust of a young person are critical to listening effectively. If a child feels that their parents or teachers either won’t understand them, or will react in undesirable ways to potential or existing drug abuse, they will choose the easier option of not communicating. It is only by listening in a non-judgmental way that a parent, teacher or a therapist will be able to decipher the context in which the adolescent became vulnerable to drug use. 

Listening involves spending time and being present and mindful. Listening is not just passive listening. Guardians need to listen for potential hints to identify issues that are making them vulnerable to drug use and other high-risk behaviours. Many a time, sources of conflicts for young people lie within the realms of home, school or peers. For instance, deteriorating academic performance along with poor attendance in school must be regarded as an alarming sign. But active listening also entails listening for positive behaviours, and encouraging them. For instance, encouraging improved grades can act as an indirect way to ensure reduced chances of risky behaviour. Being firm and consistent—as often is the case with good parenting—is key to being a good listener and communicator.

Societal role

Preventing drug abuse among youth is not the responsibility of individuals only. Society and institutions have a role to play as well. Most people who develop substance-use disorders start when they are at school. So schools should remain vigilant and not tolerate any form of psychoactive substances within their premises. School neighbourhoods should be under constant scrutiny for potential problematic behaviours. Parents should be encouraged to be involved in their children’s daily activities. Concerns of parental neglect, abuse and maltreatment should be addressed immediately, as adolescents might resort to substance use as a way of coping with such stressors. Regular meetings between parents and teachers can help create a protective environment.

It is also important to design programmes to facilitate good communication between parents, teachers and young drug users. Such programmes could prevent parents from forcing these young users immediately into rehabilitation centres, which can be counterproductive. These programmes can be self-help groups including parents and young drug users with provisions for separate counselling for parents and for their children who have started drug use. Another modality could be storytelling, art exhibitions, social venues that facilitate conversation between parents and children. Also, outlets for children—social media, online forums, anonymous helplines, chat rooms, websites etc—where the society listens to them can be an effective preventive intervention. It is important to realise that intervening early in the case of children can prevent an entire society from heading towards a drug epidemic.

Drug abuse comes at great emotional and economic costs for families and for the nation as a whole. By properly engaging with the youth and providing them with an outlet, we have the ability to check the spread of this problem. For this to work well, we need discussion on effective ways to listen, and effective ways to facilitate listening. Let us explore what it means to truly listen. Perhaps David L Weatherford’s famous poem is apt here: ‘Hear the music before the song is over’. 


Pant is a consultant psychiatrist who runs de-addiction services at the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, TU Teaching hospital; Giri works as a data scientist in the health sector in the US

Published: 30-06-2017 07:32

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