Out with the Old, In with the New: Approaches to Reduce Teen Substance Misuse & Abuse

Teen substance misuse and abuse is unfortunately nothing new. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach the issue with the same old strategies. Although previous messaging campaigns, such as the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, weren’t as effective as we all hoped, they provided insight into what worked and what didn’t.

A recent American Psychological Association feature notes that using the lessons learned from these campaigns can be essential in helping parents, educators and psychologists employ informed strategies that have the potential to make a lasting impact. When it comes to establishing effective strategies, being nimble is one of the best tools. With the substance use landscape rapidly evolving, psychologists believe it’s time for our tactics to curb youth substance misuse evolve, too.

Redefining Prevention

Experts argue that prevention efforts need to acknowledge not only the dangers of substance abuse, but also the perceived benefits of use. Developmental psychologist Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, a professor of pediatrics as well as the founder and executive director of several substance use prevention and intervention curriculums at Stanford University, explained how only focusing on the risks of substance abuse doesn’t resonate with teens. “There are real and perceived benefits to using drugs, as well as risks, such as coping with stress or liking the ‘high.’ If we only talk about the negatives, we lose our credibility.” This is especially relevant advice for the use of cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (DXM). When taken according to labeling instructions, medicines that contain DXM are safe and effective. However, when taken in excessive amounts higher than recommended doses, DXM can produce dangerous side effects.

Modern prevention programs take a more holistic approach, addressing not only substance use but also related behaviors like gaming, gambling, and risky choices. These programs recognize the complex factors contributing to substance use and aim to empower youth to make informed decisions.

However, even when incorporating harm reduction principles into community prevention efforts, some youth may still choose to experiment with substances despite prevention efforts. When parents get involved in these efforts with their teens, like having more open conversations, mental health check-ins, and monitoring medicine cabinets, they can better support their teen, help prevent future substance misuse, and nip any risk taking in the bud.

Evidence-Based Interventions

The best way to support our teens is by shifting towards more comprehensive, evidence-based, and inclusive approaches to substance use prevention that incorporates harm reduction principles and tailored interventions. No two teens are the same, and by incorporating a variety of prevention and intervention tactics, we’re more likely to effectively reach them where they are and make a positive difference.

Stanford’s Halpern-Felsher’s Research and Education to Empower Adolescents and Young Adults to Choose Health (REACH) Lab is a great example. REACH Lab uses evidence-based programs to empower adolescents and young adults to make healthy choices, especially when it comes to substance use. Tailoring programs to different age groups, REACH Lab can make an impact by reaching teens at times when they need most guidance. The curriculum dispels myths, incorporates honest discussions about the risks and benefits of substance use, provides alternative coping strategies like exercise and healthy eating, and educates teens on the impact substances can have on their overall wellbeing. This type of evidence-based intervention program strives to empower youth and teens to practice healthy-decision making, especially when it comes to turning away from substances in the future.

Today’s Innovation Will Help Tomorrow’s Teens

The more we continue to innovate our approach to teen substance abuse, the more effective our strategies become. With every new approach, we learn valuable insights into what resonates with teens and what doesn’t. Constantly building off what works, such as expanding curriculums to include the benefits of some substances, helps programs better reach youth and empower them to want to say no to substance misuse and abuse.

Take Action

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