The looming question of “What can we do to curb the addiction crisis facing our youth?” has remained unanswered because there is no single way to reduce the drug and alcohol epidemic in our society. Traditional anti-drug education in schools that focuses on scare tactics and the message “Just Say No”, has been found to be largely ineffective in children and adolescents who at the highest risk for drug abuse.
Recent anti-drug education programs work on identifying those youth who are at highest risk for drug abuse, realizing that most teens who experiment with drugs do not develop an addiction and that there are patterns in a person’s temperament that put him at a higher risk for addiction. Early trials show that personality testing or other ways to assess temperamental factors can identify adolescents who are at the highest risk, with the goal to target those risky traits before they lead to problems.
One such program named PreVenture, based at the University of Montreal, looks at these traits and has identified four thought to put kids at risk for addiction; the first three are related to mental health issues which pose a serious risk for drug and alcohol abuse:
- Impulsiveness: This trait goes hand-in-hand with ADHD.
- Anxiety sensitivity: Linked to panic disorder, anxiety sensitivity can be seen in individuals who are hyper-vigilant and scared of physical signs of anxiety.
- Hopelessness: When a person feels hopeless, they are often depressed. Depression is a very common trait and precursor to addiction.
- Sensation-seeking: Though not linked to mental health issues, people who enjoy thrills and intense experiences, will also generally like drugs and alcohol.
One way to look at this is that most at-risk children can be spotted early if they present with these symptoms. Early interventions to improve these risky traits can then be implemented.
It is also important to keep in mind that a teen who turns to drugs because of hopelessness has different expectations than a teen who turns to drugs for thrills. Distorted cognitive thinking plays a role for some adolescents who turn to drugs.
In the PreVenture model, teachers are educated about these traits and students are taught ways to manage their problematic traits in a general educational workshop approach without being called out for being “at risk”. One hypothesis is that the teacher training helps make teachers more empathic to high-risk students thereby increasing their connection to their school community, which has been shown to decrease drug use.
Studies that have looked at this model have shown a decrease in binge drinking, frequent drug use, and alcohol-related problems. Other studies have shown improvement in non-addiction symptoms as well, including depression, panic attacks and impulsive behavior, which are direct sequelae of the identified 4 high-risk traits.
The idea that identifying and addressing high-risk traits for addiction can be impactful for children and adolescents is a hopeful one and can be implemented across settings, including schools, communities and medical homes. More research can be done to determine what specific types of interventions can be helpful once those at-risk youth are identified.