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What is Prevention?

The earlier a person starts using substances, the greater their chances are of developing a substance use disorder; 90% of adults with a substance use disorder (SUD) started using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 18.

 Prevention efforts focus on delaying the age of first drug or alcohol use, or pushing it back as long as possible - whether alcohol, tobacco or marijuana - the most commonly used substances among teens. 

 The Role of Genetics

Substance use disorders can run in families. Research suggests that genetics account for about 1⁄2 of a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.

Information is power when it comes to genetic risk. Be honest with young people if they have a familial history of addiction and help them reduce their risk of developing a substance use disorder, by doing things like:

  • Delaying substance use until your brain has matured.
  • Learning skills to help you cope with stress and express emotions in a healthy way,
  • and practicing ways to refuse drugs or alcohol if they are offered to you.

Caregivers can help to strengthen protective factors for a young person who has a genetic risk for addiction by

  • setting clear expectations around no alcohol, tobacco, or drug use,
  • helping them to find and pursue activities they’re passionate about, such as music, sports, or art,
  • and investing in resilient, healthy communities where young people can thrive and feel a sense of belonging.

The Role of the Community

Coalitions bring partnerships to communities and each sector supports prevention efforts. These strategies vary based on the unique needs of a particular community, and can include:

  • changing social norms around substance use through awareness campaigns,
  • educating people of all ages about the disease of addiction
  • and teaching adults how to recognize the signs of substance use and intervene if a young person is struggling.

Risk and Protective Factors

As with many other diseases, vulnerability to SUD differs from person-to-person, and no single factor determines whether someone will become addicted to alcohol or drugs. In general, the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that using substances will lead to a SUD. 

For every risk factor, there is a protective factor to counter-balance it. Prevention focuses on strengthening the protective factors that we can control to decrease the likelihood that a person or community will struggle with addiction. 

The risk factors associated with substance use disorder are referred to as the “big three” categories of factors in prevention:

  • Individual
  • Environmental
  • Genetic

Individual factors that put an adolescent at risk besides the age of first use include parental substance use, trauma, and a lack of social attachments.

Environmental factors include high drug availability, poverty, and exposure to violence.  

Genetic factors are related to a person’s familial history of SUD. Research suggests that genetic factors account for about half of a person’s likelihood of developing a SUD. While we can’t change our genetics, knowing about our family history can help empower us to make different decisions about our substance use.


 To get out the message about the real benefits of prevention, Clare Jones, director of prevention services at Helping Services, developed this great Top 10 list. It was published originally in Prevention, Summer 2011 edition.

10. Because it's cheaper to prevent problems then to fix them. It is estimated that the cost to the nation for substance abuse is more than $500 billion dollars per year. For every $1 invested in prevention we can save up to $36. That is a lot of taxpayer money!

9. Sure, we've all heard "drink responsibly", but what does that mean? We need to have community conversations about what "low risk" drinking is, how we feel about drinking as a community, and how we model healthy behaviors for our kids. 

8. Kids who use alcohol before the age of 15 are significantly more likely to have lifelong problems with alcohol. How will that affect their lives when they are trying to balance school, a job, and a family down the line?

7. We know that the teenage brain is not completely developed until one's mid-twenties. Adding substances to that still-developing brain affects health, school performance, and makes youth more likely to engage in a whole range of other risky behaviors. Being a teenager is challenging enough as it is. Why make it harder?

6. It is not as easy as "Just Say No." All kids need to hear that it is unhealthy and unacceptable for anyone under the age of 21 to drink or use other drugs. Let's teach them how to say no, how to make good choices, and how to deal with stress in healthy ways. 

5. It is not just about having a designated driver. Do you know that alcohol is involved in 50% of sexual assaults?

4. Because drinking too much significantly increases your chances of being injured or even killed. Think fatal car crashes, falls, drowning, and burns.

3. Because parents need to hear the message that they are the number one reason most teenagers choose not to use alcohol or other drugs. Your children might be telling you that you're lame, but we know they are listening. Kids who don't have parents who make clear rules about alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drugs are three times more likely to use them. Talking over family dinners is a great way to start the conversation about your rules and consequences?

2. It can be as simple as matching kids with a mentor who will take them fishing or out to get an ice cream cone. Believe it! The research tells us it's true: mentoring can prevent drug use. Kids who are connected with caring adults are less likely to use substances and more likely to do better in school and in life. Who do the youth in your life trust and feel connected to?

And the No. 1 reason that prevention is important is...       

1. Because you can connect almost every other social concern to substance abuse in some way: crime, poor health, poverty and abuse, to name a few. If we can make an impact on local substance abuse: smoking (tobacco and/or marijuana), underage drinking, binge drinking and other drug use, we can take a big step toward creating a healthier community and healthier lives for those living in West Springfield.