Improve Protective Factors to Reduce SUDs

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Introductory Paragraph

Many factors influence a person’s chance of developing a mental health or substance use disorder (SUD). Prevention focuses on both reducing risk factors and strengthening protective factors. A key part of addressing the opioid crisis (and addiction in general) is to have a multi-faceted plan to reduce the risk factors that lead to people intentionally misusing medications or taking drugs. Prevention efforts simultaneously work to increase the protective factors that increase the likelihood of going down paths that lead to an SUD. A landmark publication by Hawkins et al. (1992) delineates this two-pronged strategy and has been built upon by prevention scientists for decades. [1]

Key Information

Creating positive factors to help prevent drug use is essential to any prevention effort. Protective factors affect children and adults throughout every stage of their lives. Building positive factors throughout all life stages is something is extremely important. Another benefit of protective factors is their compound effect on each other. For example, the development of a good relationship may lead to interest in extracurricular activities. Positive protective factors also help prevent mental illness which in turn can help prevent SUDs. Some effective protective factors include: self-control, parental monitoring, academic competence, anti-drug use policies, and strong neighborhood attachment. Note how these span a variety of socio-ecological domains -- from individual to family to school to community. Examples of risk factors in these same domains are listed below:

  • Individual -- Early Aggressive Behavior
  • Family -- Lack of Parental Supervision
  • School -- Drug Availability
  • Community -- Poverty

SAMHSA utilizes the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF) to help prevention professionals identify and focus upon addressing those factors that will have the greatest impact on target populations within specific communities. An assessment of risk and protective factors in the local community helps with planning the best interventions to implement. The SAMHSA risk and protective factors guide is a resource that further defines risk and protective factors. "Risk factors are characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes. Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes or that reduce a risk factor’s impact. Protective factors may be seen as positive countering events. Some risk and protective factors are fixed: they don’t change over time. Other risk and protective factors are considered variable and can change over time." [2]

  • Variable risk factors include income level, peer group, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and employment status.
  • Individual-level risk factors include a person’s genetic predisposition to addiction or exposure to alcohol prenatally.
  • Individual-level protective factors include positive self-image, self-control, or social competence.

National Institute on Drug Abuse research has shown that the key risk periods for drug use are during major transitions in children’s lives. The first big transition for children is when they leave the security of the family and enter school. Later, when they advance from elementary school to middle school and to high school, they often experience new academic and social situations, such as learning to get along with a wider group of peers. It is at this stage of early adolescence that children are likely to encounter drugs for the first time. These are key times to have awareness and amplify protective factors for prevention.

Relevant Research

NIDA -- The National Institute on Drug Abuse is the largest supporter of the world’s research on substance use and addiction. Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIDA conducts and supports biomedical research to advance the science on substance use and addiction and improve individual and public health. [3]

SAMHSA -- A robust summary of prevention research can also be found in SAMHSA (2019) - "Substance Misuse Prevention for Young Adults." [4]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

The National Prevention Strategy (NPS) was called for under the Affordable Care Act. [5] It serves as a framework for the identification of policy objectives to advance prevention. The NPS was developed by the National Prevention Council, a collaborative effort by seventeen federal agencies. One component of NPS that is particularly significant is the complementarity of four strategies that address both individual and community responsibilities in promoting health and wellness:

  • Healthy and Safe Community Environments
  • Clinical and Community Preventive Services
  • Empowered People
  • Elimination of Health Disparities

The NPS is also significant in its emphasis on the integration of its seven priorities:

  • Tobacco Free Living
  • Preventing Drug Abuse and Excessive Alcohol Use
  • Healthy Eating
  • Active Living
  • Injury and Violence Free Living
  • Reproductive and Sexual Health
  • Mental and Emotional Well-Being

Available Tools and Resources

Protective Factors -- Approaches in Child Welfare is an issue brief produced by the Children's Bureau within the US Department of Health and Human Services [6]

A Guide to SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework includes information on the assessment of risk and protective factors. [7]

Promising Practices

Communities that Care [8] guides communities through a five-phase change process based on "Social Development Strategy." Using prevention science as its base, CTC promotes healthy youth development, improves youth outcomes, and reduces problem behaviors. Documented outcomes include

  • 25% less likely to have initiated delinquent behavior
  • 32% less likely to have initiated the use of alcohol
  • 33% less likely to have initiated cigarette use than control community youths

The Search Institute [9] provides a framework for prevention that is based upon both community commitment to youth and an asset-based or positive psychology model. The identification of 40 developmental assets was based upon years of research and has provided communities with a way to index and measure change in youth behavior. The work of the Search Institute has reached over 3 million youth.

The Ohio Opioid Education Alliance is an example of implementation of approaches to address risk and protective factors. [10]

Start Talking [11] The state of Ohio takes a multi-faceted approach to address the current epidemic. Efforts include promoting public and professional education, increasing enforcement and interdiction efforts on our highways, and expanding treatment options and recovery supports.


  1. Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., & Miller, J. Y. (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological Bulletin, 112(1), 64–105. Retrieved from
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Substance Misuse Prevention for Young Adults. Publication No. PEP19-PL-Guide-1 Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019. Retrieved from