What is Prevention?
The earlier a person starts using substances, the greater their chances of developing a substance use disorder; ninety percent of adults with a substance use disorder(SUD) started using alcohol or drugs before they turned 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 Adolescent Brain
The adolescent brain is undergoing an amazing phase of rapid development—learning and growing all of the time. This is why it’s easier for young people to learn an instrument or speak a new language than it is for adults, but it also makes the adolescent brain more vulnerable to injury— including the harmful effects of alcohol and drugs. The brain continues to develop until a person reaches their early to mid-20s, with the regions of the brain that control emotions and impulses and help us make decisions among the last to develop. This is why adolescents are more likely to take risks and make impulsive decisions, such as trying drugs and alcohol in the first place. Protecting the brain during this period of development is crucial to a person’s overall health and dramatically reduces the risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life.
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 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.