The New York Times had an article in September 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/well/family/the-4-traits-that-put-kids-at-risk-for-addiction.html) that discussed the risk factors for addiction. Traditional anti-drug education in schools focuses on scare tactics and the message “Just Say No”, which 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 4 primary traits:
- Anxiety sensitivity
Three of these are linked directly to mental health concerns. Impulsivity is commonly seen in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Anxiety sensitivity refers to being overly aware and frightened of physical signs of anxiety, and is commonly seen in panic disorder and to a lesser extent other anxiety disorders. Hopelessness is a symptom of depression. One way to look at this is that most at-risk children can be spotted early, if they present with these symptoms, with early interventions to improve these risky traits.
It is also important to keep in mind that a teen who turns to drugs because of hopelessness has different expectations than a teen to 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.
The success of Preventure offers providers insight into to the early signs and symptoms of those children who are at greatest risk of addiction. For kids with personality traits that put them at risk of addiction, learning how to manage them can potentially change the trajectory that can lead to tragedy. Early cognitive behavioral therapy to address the underlying emotional and mental health challenges may help reduce the likelihood of addiction.