Natural High provides alternative to substance abuse


Jon Sundt’s anti-drug message to teens is much more than “just say no.” He wants teens to pursue a “natural high,” meaning a passion for things in their lives that provide them a healthy alternative to substance abuse.

Before advising teens to reject drugs, said Sundt, a La Jolla resident, “We believe you’ve got to give them something to say yes to first.”

More than 20 years ago, Sundt founded a nonprofit, now called Natural High, that uses a variety of methods, from celebrity videos to classroom materials, designed to guide students toward discovering their passion, whether it’s art, sports, religion, music or environmental causes, or something else.

Sundt is also an entrepreneur, having founded an investment company that he later sold. But his motivation for launching his anti-drug nonprofit foundation was deeply personal - he lost two younger brothers, one to an overdose and the other to suicide, deaths that were both related to drug addiction.

“When I lost two loved ones to addiction, I became obsessed with prevention,” Sundt said.

The program is primarily targeted at middle-school students, although it is also used in high school, Sundt said.

The cornerstone of the program is a series of short videos made by celebrities and youth ambassadors - including athletes and artists - who talk about their own natural highs, with the idea of inspiring teens to seek out and pursue things they are passionate about.

The nonprofit has also developed classroom materials such as worksheets and discussion guides, which can be used to follow up on the messages from the videos. All of the materials are provided free to schools, and the curriculum has been distributed nationwide.

Sundt said he tells people that the program is 50 percent science, and 50 percent common sense. Although there hasn’t yet been a scientific study of Natural High’s effectiveness at discouraging teens from using drugs or alcohol, Sundt said the results can be seen through the testimonials of students and teachers and through the success of similar programs in the U.S. and in Iceland, where a national effort has led to a dramatic drop in teen substance abuse.

A natural high, he said, can provide a similar effect on brain chemistry as a drug, he said, without the adverse effects of drug addiction. And people can have more than one natural high.

“A natural high is something you are, something you do, something you believe in,” Sundt said. “The more natural highs the better.”

Wendi Nelson, a student services specialist with the Poway Unified School District, teaches drug and tobacco prevention classes for middle-schoolers, and also works with high school students to help them stop smoking.

Nelson said she loves the positive message in the Natural High program.

“I feel it’s a tool that can be used universally,” for students from all backgrounds, she said. “It’s a message people gravitate toward.”

“Keep doing things, trying things, put yourself out there and try different activities. Studies show the more they do that the less they turn to drugs,” Nelson said.

Nelson teaches the program to middle-schoolers in two-week blocks, and she also incorporates Natural High’s messages with high schoolers, although she conceded that it can be tougher to get through to older students.

She tells the students the Natural High approach will require more effort than popping a pill or lighting up a joint, but it will be much better for them in the long run.

“It will be worth it, it will just take some effort on your part,” Nelson tells her students. “It’s an honest approach,” she said.

Nelson said some of her at-risk students would benefit from stories by people who have succumbed to drug use, but then turned their lives around. Sundt said he is concerned such videos could send the message that it’s OK to experiment with drugs as long as you later stop using. But he does plan to introduce some “grittier” true-life stories next year, along with appropriate discussion guides and worksheets.

As for the future of Natural High, Sundt wants to keep pushing the organization to new levels.

“I want this program to be in every middle school in America, that’s our goal,” he said.