Mediaplanet: What are some of the shocking facts behind youth and prescription medication addiction and misuse today? 

Jon Sundt: Every day in the U.S., 2,500 youths misuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time. Studies show that depressants, opioids and antidepressants are responsible for more overdose deaths than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and amphetamines combined. A study at Columbia University demonstrated that teens who misuse prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times more likely to use marijuana and 12 to 20 times more likely to use illegal street drugs such as heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine than teens who do not misuse prescription drugs. As a parent myself that is a really scary statistic—especially since studies show that 50 percent of teens out there believe that prescription medication is safe.

MP: Why wasn’t the “Just Say No” model of drug prevention programs effective in the past?

JS: There are a few different reasons for this, but most importantly when you tell kids not to do something they are wired to want to try it. There’s a part of a young person’s brain that instinctively tells them to take risks and turn to one’s peers. Additionally, the “Just Say No” approach relied heavily on scare tactics and dumping information about the effects drugs have on your brain—all while there is conflicting messaging out there either from their immediate peer groups, parents and/or family members and even the media showing the use of drinking or drugs, with no visible side effects.

"Turning to your natural high is one of the most powerful stress-relievers out there, and it proves to be a really powerful outlet for dealing with stress."

Lastly, a lot of kids out there lack the interpersonal skills they need in order to effectively combat peer pressure and just say no. We’re flipping the script, empowering kids to discover their passion and giving them healthy alternatives to say yes to instead. I could share thousands of testimonials our education community has shared about the power of this model, about how it’s working and how it’s literally changing lives every single day.

MP: How have organizations changed their structure to have a greater impact on keeping young people drug-free?  

JS: We’ve seen a lot of organizations speaking directly to youth, empowering them with facts, letting them know that the phrase “everyone’s doing it” is a myth and giving them the opportunity to engage the various drug prevention tactics out there. We’re also seeing a lot of organizations harness the power of social media to amplify the message.

MP: How can we encourage children and adolescents to establish healthy habits early on to refrain from drugs and alcohol?

JS: We encourage all kids to discover, amplify and pursue their natural high as a healthy alternative to combat the temptation to even try drugs and alcohol. It’s something you can start as early as the age of 3 and reinforce throughout their childhood.

MP: How can parents and other adult role models work to educate and protect our nation’s children and adolescents from increasingly accessible opioids, stimulants and depressants?

JS: Consistent communication year-round is key—and the earlier you start talking with kids about substance use, the better. In fact, research has shown that simply having the conversation with children can decrease their likelihood of drug use by as much as 50 percent as opposed to those who don’t have these critical conversations. There are a lot of great free tools and resources out there that parents can use to educate and help drive the conversation with their kids.

MP: Why is it important for celebrities and international icons to promote a clean and drug-free lifestyle?

JS: Kids are getting hit over the head with mixed messages from the media about drugs and alcohol. It’s really sad how much the tabloids are pushing stories about celebrities in and out of rehab, dealing with addiction or in even more heart breaking instances—losing their battle. A lot of popular music glorifies substance use and partying, so the perception out there is that everybody is doing it, even kids’ favorite heroes and role models.

Using celebrities and international icons gives us an opportunity to tell a different story, a story about making healthy choices to achieve their goals. Their credibility and stature have the ability to completely debunk the idea that everybody is doing it and show kids that success is a product of pursuing your passion, and living drug-free. Even better, celebrity role models get kids to listen. We hear from hundreds of educators that when they share celebrity videos, they can literally hear a pin drop in their otherwise noisy classrooms.

Left: Professional surfer Rob Machado; Right: Actor Corbin Bleu

MP: What are some suggestions you have for dealing with the daily stresses of life in a safe and healthy way?

JS: Turning to your natural high is one of the most powerful stress-relievers out there, and it proves to be a really powerful outlet for dealing with stress. For me, I love to surf, spend time with my family and pour my energy into growing this organization so we can change more lives. It’s easy for folks to get carried away in daily stresses of life, but when you align yourself with your passions and embarking on something that you love to do—that’s when the magic happens.