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Close-up of a water droplet creating ripples.

Preventing Substance Abuse: Essential as Water


​I think of substance abuse prevention as being a lot like water:

  • The need for it is substantial
  • Its absence or presence has a ripple effect
  • The cost of providing it is much less than the cost of being without it
  • It comes in many forms

Substance abuse prevention, including the prevention of underage substance use, needs to be a priority for every person who is working to promote individual, family, or community well-being. Research has linked substance abuse with many issues that affect well-being including: poor academic achievement, school suspensions, unemployment, homelessness, violence, mental illness, and poverty.

Often, substance abuse contributes to the onset of another problem, or is a consequence of another problem. In most cases, the substance abuse and other problem become intertwined, each exacerbating the other, such that healing one requires healing the other. Likewise, preventing substance abuse helps prevent other issues and/or decrease their consequences. Substance abuse prevention is essential for promoting healthy, thriving families and communities.

Substance abuse and underage substance use prevention can take many forms. In Minnesota, prevention strategies include:

  • Educational efforts focused on teaching people the risks related to substance abuse
  • Policy-related efforts to decrease access to and limit the promotion of harmful substances 
  • Law enforcement initiatives to increase the enforcement and impact of laws
  • Social norms efforts designed to promote healthy social expectations around substance use
  • Social activities to provide substance-free alternatives and the opportunity to connect with people who have similar beliefs around substance use

What makes a prevention effort most effective?

There are many factors, but most important is how well the intervention matches the specific conditions being addressed. Back to our water analogy, for cooking pasta, boiling water is more effective than ice; if you have a swollen ankle, ice is far better than boiling water. SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has developed a five-step process, the Strategic Prevention Framework, for maximizing the effectiveness of prevention strategies. The steps include assessment, capacity building, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Cultural considerations and sustainability are addressed in each step.  This framework is being used in communities throughout Minnesota.

If substance abuse prevention is like water, then we could say that all people in the human service field are working to improve the same lake. We may each have our own priorities, such as the health of the fish or the quality of the water, but ultimately our goals are interdependent. As importantly, while restoring the lake is essential, both in terms of cost and effectiveness, prevention is key to sustained success.

Additional resources:
Substance Use in Minnesota – An interactive website that presents a lot of data related to substance use in Minnesota.  
Minnesota Prevention Resource Center – The website for the Minnesota Prevention Resource Center, which provides prevention information statewide.
evaluATOD – A website with interactive e-learning modules, resources and webinars, about evaluating prevention efforts.
Minnesota Regional ATOD Prevention Coordinators - Regional Prevention Coordinators provide training and technical support in the seven regions of Minnesota.
Substance abuse prevention studies - Wilder Research studies on the topic.

Laura Schauben was a research scientist in Wilder Research.


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