Being assigned male at birth, identifying as LGBTQ+, experiencing early life traumas, and pre-existing mental health conditions are predictors of addiction during adolescence or later in life. Having one or even many of these risk factors does not always mean someone will get addicted, though. There are just as many factors that can reduce someone’s risk of a substance use disorder. If you or someone you love is at high risk for addiction, there is hope. Read this guide to learn how to prevent drug addiction by reducing risk factors and enhancing protective ones.
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How to Prevent Drug Addiction
Preventing drug addiction is beneficial for individuals, their families, and society at large. Studies show that substance use prevention programs can save up to $65 for every dollar invested.
For best results, starting early is key. Below, we discuss how preventing addiction in adolescence is integral to preventing addiction in adulthood, plus some tips for preventing substance abuse by reducing individual risk factors.
Prevent Drug Addiction in Adolescents
Substance use disorders are among the three most common mental health conditions among Canadian youths. Canadian substance use disorder rates are higher among 15 to 24-year-olds than any other age group.
Not all risk factors for adolescent drug use are preventable. For example, some teens may be born with a smaller frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is the brain area responsible for higher-level thinking tasks like impulse control and decision-making.
The good news is that some risk factors for early drug use can be prevented. Parents, educators, and other interested parties should focus on the following preventative strategies, especially during times of transition like moving houses, parental divorces, and school changes.
Understanding Peer Pressure
Peer pressure and drug abuse have a bi-directional relationship. In other words, peer pressure can lead to problematic substance use, and addiction can make teens more vulnerable to peer pressure.
The teenage years are full of uncertainty and, often, insecurity. Adolescents want to fit in and look cool, which may lead them to try drugs or alcohol when encouraged by their peers. Teens born with smaller frontal cortices may be even more prone to peer pressure due to a lack of impulse control.
Using drugs early can also impact the cortex, making it more difficult for teens to understand the risks of early drug use. This brain area also controls judgment and decision-making processes. When it does not function optimally, someone may be more likely to give in to peer pressure.
Helping young people understand the risks of peer pressure can encourage them to choose better friend groups. Youths who spend time around other kids who use substances are more likely to try drugs, too, while teens with substance-free friend groups are more likely to remain abstinent.
Developing Close Family Ties
Some people are genetically predisposed to addiction, but not all of them end up abusing drugs. Protective factors can reduce one’s risk, even when already high. An example of these protective factors is family support.
Specifically, having nurturing and communicative parents or caregivers protects teens from developing addictions. Conversely, having a parent with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder themselves can increase the risk of teen drug abuse.
There is still hope for youths with unsupportive home environments. Positive experiences at school and peer relationships can also be just as protective against addiction as a healthy home life.
Learning Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanisms are skills and activities used to process negative feelings and emotions. Often, teens use drugs to cope. Learning other, healthier coping mechanisms early can greatly reduce the chances of risky drug use.
There are many goals of coping skills, including preventing stress, accepting discomfort, and changing things within one’s control. Here are some examples of coping strategies that can be helpful for teens:
- Planning ahead for how to deal with stressful or uncomfortable situations
- Learning how to process and release negative emotions in a healthy way
- Practising self-care
Some activities to consider include journaling, reading, or taking up a creative hobby. As we will discuss briefly, eating right and exercising regularly can also be healthy coping mechanisms.
Educating on the Risks of Drug Abuse
Educating adolescents about the risks of drug use at an early age is crucial. The teen brain is highly vulnerable as the brain continues to develop. These vulnerabilities are present until the brain stops maturing at around 25 or 26.
The brain changes from early drug use can increase the chances of developing a substance use disorder, but that’s not all. Drug-related damage to certain brain areas is also associated with long-term learning and memory deficits that may not be reversible.
Early drug use can also impact other areas of the body. Drug use makes injuries and accidents more likely, increases the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, and raises the risk of future liver or kidney dysfunction.
Finally, using drugs ruins lives. Youth substance abuse is associated with poor academic outcomes, job hopping, social isolation, and teen pregnancies. Crimes, violence, and other legal issues are other potential impacts of teen drug use that adolescents need to understand.
Living a Well-Balanced Life
Balanced living means giving equal focus to all aspects of life: interpersonal relationships, work or school, physical health, and emotional well-being. These habits can serve as protective factors against early drug use.
There are multiple components to a well-balanced life, including healthy eating, exercise, and stress-reduction activities. Starting these habits early can prepare teens and young adults for long-term success.
De-stressing activities include partaking in creative activities like drawing, playing an instrument, or writing. Taking up a hobby and trying new things are also excellent practices to start during teenagehood.
Exercise and physical activity are an integral part of the school day until middle and high school. Encouraging teens to partake in physical activities they enjoy benefits stress levels, but exercise is also beneficial for mental and physical health, body image, and self-esteem.
Finally, a healthy diet is crucial not only for aesthetic reasons but also for optimising brain function. Parents and educators can encourage home-cooked meals rich in fresh ingredients. Teens should also be taught that all foods can be healthy in moderation, including their favourite sugary treats.
Getting Professional Help
Getting professional help is all well and good. Yet, to prevent the need for addiction treatments in the first place, teens need professional help dealing with unresolved trauma, mental health symptoms, or both.
Many people turn to drugs to escape past or ongoing trauma. Early exposure to trauma, in particular, has been shown to correlate with teen drug abuse. Ongoing family dysfunction, lack of parental supervision, or both can further increase the chances of a teen turning to drugs.
Other adolescents use drugs to self-medicate. For instance, studies have found that mental health symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression make a young person more likely to abuse substances.
With a professional’s help, teens can learn the healthy coping mechanisms we discussed above. They can get treatment for mental health symptoms and change negative thought patterns related to childhood trauma.
How to Prevent Drug Addiction in Adulthood
Preventing addiction in adulthood begins during adolescence. Studies show that using drugs for the first time before the age of 15 greatly increases someone’s risk of developing a substance use disorder in adulthood.
Many of the prevention strategies that work for children and teens are also beneficial for adults. For example, using positive coping mechanisms, learning about addiction, practising healthy lifestyle habits, and seeking professional help for trauma or untreated mental health symptoms can reduce adults’ risk.
Other risk factors are more common in adulthood and deserve special attention. Adulthood is often the time many people start using prescription medications. Some adults also experience high stress due to work or family issues like job loss and divorce.
Taking the Prescribed Amount
Doctors prescribe medications when they believe the benefits outweigh the risks. However, all medications present risks, whether someone has a valid prescription or not. One of those risks is addiction.
Luckily, individuals can lower their risk of addiction to prescription medication by using it according to a doctor’s guidelines. For example, only take the dose the doctor recommends according to the schedule prescribed.
Taking a medication more often or in larger doses than a doctor recommends may result in tolerance. Tolerance is one of the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis. It happens when the brain adjusts to a dose of medication and needs increasingly higher amounts to achieve the same effects.
Additionally, avoid stopping the use of a prescription without a doctor’s help. Quitting a prescription medication can potentially lead to withdrawal symptoms, which are painful and can even be fatal in some cases.
Not Sharing Prescriptions
Taking someone else’s prescription medications is not only dangerous but also illegal. When not used with a valid doctor’s prescription, they are scheduled drugs with criminal consequences for use or even possession.
Additionally, taking a medication prescribed for someone else can increase the risk of addiction. Doctors work hard to tailor medications to someone’s unique neurobiological makeup, symptomatology, and tolerance.
However, the right medication for one person is not necessarily effective for someone else, even if they have the same diagnosis.
Having Honest Conversations About Prescription Risks
The first step to getting a prescription is an assessment. During the assessment, a doctor asks about personal health history. Patients must be honest about their addiction history during the assessment.
Remember that addiction impacts parts of the brain responsible for preventing future drug-taking behaviours. As such, being in recovery for one addiction or, worse, having an untreated substance use disorder may raise the risk for a future problem.
When a doctor has access to this information, they can incorporate it into the person’s prescription. Some medications are more addictive than others. A doctor can help recovering addicts find the most effective medication with the least potential for unwanted side effects like addiction.
Engaging in Mindful Activities
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on the present moment. It promotes acceptance, which can be crucial for getting through stressful situations that can’t be changed.
Some mindful activities include making gratitude lists, going for a walk, or even gardening. The goal is to focus attention entirely on the task at hand, which is why nearly any activity can incorporate mindfulness.
Participating in mindfulness is beneficial for preventing drug misuse and addiction in a few ways. Mindfulness can reduce stress, decrease depressive feelings, strengthen relationships, and improve memory.
Taking Time for Yourself
Taking time for yourself is also known as self-care. Self-care is an important aspect of recovering from addiction and preventing relapse.
Self-care is good for self-esteem. Self-esteem makes people feel better about themselves, which can improve mental health symptoms and the ability to deal with stress.
With stress and mental health symptoms being common triggers for drug use, self-care is an indirect way to prevent addictive behaviours.
The best way to prevent drug abuse is never to use drugs. Also known as abstinence, not using drugs can prevent changes to the brain that make someone more likely to become an addict.
While it’s a myth that someone can develop an addiction after only one use of a drug, overdose is possible after only one use. As such, abstinence can not only reduce the rate of drug addictions but also save lives.
Get the Facts About Preventing Drug Addiction
We hope this guide on how to prevent drug addiction in adults and adolescents has helped you understand the risks and protective factors for substance use disorders. Preventing addiction begins in childhood when the brain is most sensitive to drugs’ harmful effects.
Are you searching for more advice about preventing addictions for yourself or a loved one? Simcoe Addiction and Mental Health is home to Ontario’s top addiction experts and resources.
Contact Simcoe to get more of your addiction prevention questions answered and learn about our treatment options.