Dr. Dan Headrick wants your kids to get high. Not that way. A natural high. He wants them to be so high on life itself that there will be absolutely no temptation to even try alcohol or drugs until they’re 21. To that end, he created The Other Side, a DVD and presentation targeting fourth- and fifth-graders because that’s the optimal age to have an impact on them and because kids are starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol at younger ages these days.
He takes the adage “Just Say No,” espoused by Nancy Reagan in the 80s, and flips it to create a new paradigm – essentially “Just Say Yes” to your passion, and let your body’s own endorphins create take care of the rest. “No one’s actively cultivating the realization and identification of passion (in kids),” he said.
His efforts are unfolding against a backdrop that’s very different than a generation ago, when it was mostly beer, pot and cocaine that kids were dabbling in. Now marijuana is stronger; harder and more addictive drugs like heroin have proliferated; and there’s an epidemic of prescription drug overdose, especially in Orange County. Drugs are also more accessible and cheaper than ever before.
His program dovetails with other efforts, like Natalie Costa’s Behind the Orange Curtain, which includes a documentary and website to educate parents about the national epidemic of prescription drug abuse, which can then lead to heroin addiction, as well as lawsuits last year by Orange and Santa Clara counties against five of the biggest manufacturers of prescription drugs, calling them out for creating the nation’s prescription drug epidemic by violating state laws against false advertising, unfair business practices and creating a public nuisance.
Headrick became a doctor in 1980. He chose to work in the recovery movement in 1986 because that’s where he identified the most pressing need. He still works in this industry at Tres Vistas Recovery and as the owner of Headrick Medical Clinic in Dana Point and San Clemente. While treatment and rehab centers are great for helping addicts, The Other Side is more aligned with Kaiser’s “Thrive” campaign – to incentivize kids to do the right thing, instead of treating them for addictions and/or disease when they don’t.
He started The Other Side in April 2014 after treating addicts for close to 30 years. He’s helped more than 17,000 addicts, he said. He spearheaded The Other Side because he saw kids dying younger, some before they even got to the point of being addicted. At the same time, parents were clamoring to learn how to use syringe packets, which would be necessary to employ if their kids overdosed. Whatever anti-drug education kids were receiving didn’t seem to be working, he said. So, Headrick stepped into the void to show kids a different perspective the other side, so to speak. He figured if he could just get kids to close to 21 years of age without trying drugs or alcohol, not only would they be less likely to experiment with these later on, but they would potentially be savvier about it. There’s science behind this, he points out – the formation of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which acts like the CEO, takes about 22 years. This is the part that regulates common sense.
People who start drinking alcohol before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol abuse or dependence than those who start using alcohol at age 21 or older, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc.
So, Headrick came up with the idea of having students sign a pledge – that they would not touch drugs or alcohol until they graduate from high school. Parents have to sign too. To date, hundreds of kids have signed, he said. Ideally, he wants them to keep the pledge until they’re 21, but he hasn’t yet designed any way to keep track of them after high school.
He started by putting up fliers at local schools to find kids who were already doing what he was espousing, but on their own – who had never tried drugs or alcohol and could therefore serve as role models for middle schoolers. His goal is to get 5,000 middle schoolers to participate in the next two years.
Another technique he uses is documentaries. He first did this in 2014 with a CD entitled “Do No Harm,” aimed at doctors to curtail the over-prescribing of prescription drugs. It’s been a tough sell for the medical establishment, he admitted, attributing that to the challenge of changing the mindset of doctors and the misperception that addiction is nothing more than willful misconduct.
For The Other Side, he enlisted some of the role-model students who are passionate and articulate, like Payton Schrum, who is the main spokesperson. He takes the DVD and these students with him when he talks at student assemblies. At most assemblies he witnessed before he started his program, school administrators would trot out former drug users and addicts — those who would confess about their drug use as teenagers, their dark moments of the soul and their eventual recovery. While these are emotionally compelling stories, Headrick does not believe that former drug users/addicts should be addressing kids to talk about the perils of drugs, because he believes this implies the tacit permission of experimental drug use, he said, and can lead to peer pressure.
“It’s part of group consciousness,” he said. “If one person tries drugs, more will. It’s promoting drug abuse.”
Attorney and parent Rich Bridgford agrees. He fully supports Headrick’s efforts. He has five kids, ranging in age from 13 to 24, and knows the imperative of being a good role model. He does not think it’s a good idea for parents to tell their kids that they smoked pot or drank beer when they were young because that could also implicitly condone their children to do the same, with the mindset “It won’t be so bad because my parents did it when they were young.”
“Regardless of what parents say, kids model what we do,” Bridgford said. “We know so much more about how the brain functions now than when we were kids. So, sharing what we may have done by way of experimentation as youth isn’t helpful. It merely sends the message that ‘we did it and we seemed to have turned out alright.’ It’s not to be encouraged based on what we know now. It’s about progress.”
Kids are wired to get high naturally, Bridgford said. It’s just making sure they continue in that direction. Most people turn to alcohol and drugs for the immediate payoff and if you short-circuit this, especially when you’re young, it can be too late to avoid addiction as you get older, he said. Also, drinking or drug use at a young age interferes with alternative coping mechanisms to deal with emotional stress, like prayer, meditation, exercise and socializing.
“You are basically tuning out, not in,” he said. “And that’s not ‘real.”
Headrick is especially adamant against the use of marijuana because even though some consider it more innocuous than harder drugs or alcohol, it can rob you of your passion, he said.
His program helps invalidate traditional stereotypes like the jock who drinks hard or deadheads who turn to marijuana to chillax. The Other Side unites all kids who sign the pledge with a common goal.
“We dream of a time when kids have fun, express themselves individually and take part in an abundance of activities, doing it all sober and drug-free,” his mission statement says.
So, what about “Just Say No”? It’s just not a viable paradigm, Headrick said, because it does precisely the opposite of its intention. By beating kids over the head to say “No”, it can lead some kids to rebel and want to do whatever it is they are being told not to. That’s just natural in teenagers, he said. And, it’s given the abstinence movement a stigma that he’s working to change.
His program is one of encouragement through primary prevention – get high naturally, sign a pledge, be proactive in preventing what you don’t want, instead of reacting to it once it’s already happened.
As far as the program goes, once students and their parents sign the pledge, the intent is to have students undergo two random drug tests a year. But the funding has not materialized to implement this yet, Headrick said.
The idea is that if a student breaks the pledge, they have one chance to start over. Another future plan is to start having end-of-school-year parties to celebrate participant’s commitment to their pledges. Eventually, he would like to see The Other Side adopted by schools around the country.
The kids that are the most passionate about The Other Side do not fall neatly along stereotypical lines. Half have parents who were or are drug addicts. The common thread is they all have a mentor, typically someone outside the family, to guide them into making good decisions, Headrick said. They also have a deep sense of connection, whether it’s to themselves, their family or spirituality, he added.
The reaction from many parents, especially parent-teacher associations, has been enthusiastic, Bridgford said. But not all parents are on board, he added.
“Not surprisingly, some parents may be ambivalent about The Other Side’s message,” he said. “It puts the focus squarely on our behavior in front of our kids. And if there are issues there, parents need to deal with those, if they are going to speak with any authority to their children.”
Currently, The Other Side program has been promoted in close to 100 schools in Orange County. Since Headrick doesn’t have the funds to add more schools, he’s instead challenging schools to make their own documentaries with their own role models. He would also like to see a “How to Get Naturally High” course offered at local schools. To graduate, you would have to convince your classmates of how to do this, he said. To fully expand the program, Headrick is looking to raise $250,000 to create a 501c3 non-profit, “Kids from The Other Side.”
Headrick blames Big Pharma, the criminal justice system and the recovery industry, (which he admits he’s profited from for decades by working in this industry), for perpetuating the problem of drug addiction in the U.S. Since he had his epiphany to go into primary prevention and create The Other Side, he’s tried to get the recovery industry to put 10% of its effort into primary prevention.
So far, the results have been disappointing, but he’s certainly not giving up.
“Not giving up is what passion is all about,” he said. “Like trying to do something that people think is impossible. Like imagining 99% of all kids going through their teen years without a drink or drugs. And, having a blast! That’s my dream and it doesn’t matter if it takes 50 years or 250 years.”
The Seven Traits of Kids Who Have Not Experimented with Drugs or Alcohol:
1. I’m just too busy to use drugs.
2. I feel great as I am. Why change what’s working?
3. I made a commitment and keeping my word is important to me.
4. I have positive friends and family who don’t use. I want to be like them.
5. I’m focused on developing my own interests and the joy of that is enough.
6. Who cares what ‘they’ say? They’re losers!
7. I’m fortunate. I’m blessed. I want to help others feel that way too.