Drug use can have serious consequences in our homes, schools and communities. It can be difficult to respond to the risks to young people before they have become problems. However, prevention science is making progress, and there are many effective interventions for young people to help prevent risk behaviors before drug abuse occurs. When we understand the science behind what makes one more susceptible to use or abuse, we can be more effective in what we choose to do to influence its onset. Intervention and treatment professionals no longer use the term substance abuse, but rather substance use disorders, which can range from mild to severe. Substance use disorders occur when chronic use of alcohol and/or other drugs causes significant impairment, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at home, school or work.
The main principles of effective prevention programs work to enhance protective factors and reduce risk factors. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), risk factors are characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes. Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes or that reduce a risk factor’s impact. Protective factors may be seen as positive countering events.
Both risk and protective factors occur in the person's environment (socially and physically) and are made up of their personal characteristics. In the environment we look at what supports one has through family, friends, neighbors and the community; what physical access or barriers are there to services; what consequences are there for their behaviors, including what incentives are present; and finally what are their living conditions and exposure to resources and hazards. Personal factors are unique to each individual and include: knowledge, beliefs, skills, education and training, experience and history, and biology or genetics. Across the environment and in one's personal life the risk and protective factors can be categorized into five domains: youth, family, peer, community and society. The more risk factors present in a person's life, the greater the likelihood they will engage in unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse, and the more protective factors they have the less likely they are to engage.
The young people in our community will be better served if we can work with them as early as possible to develop knowledge and skills that will protect them. There are a number of factors that will be present in a child's life that the community cannot change; however, many others can be influenced for the better when we work with them early and as caring adults.
When we educate ourselves to the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs we may do better at preventing our children from participating in their use.
Visit the SAMHSA website for a comprehensive review of common substance use disorders.