Prevention Week: Stopping a Problem Before It Starts


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has designated May 13-19 as Prevention Week, with the theme of “Action Today. Healthier Tomorrow.” This national observance is dedicated to helping people understand more about substance use prevention and positive mental health. At Westmont Family Counseling Ministries, we help people of all ages who are struggling with substance abuse problems every day. But preventing young people from starting to use alcohol and drugs is one of the best strategies for combating this problem.

Why Prevention Week is held in May

According to the SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health, teens and young adults are most likely to use substances for the first time in June or July. This is because the beginning of summer often represents a life transition for young people – from high school to college, for example, or even just to a new grade or school. Life transitions are a risk factor for youth substance abuse.

Preventing young people from abusing alcohol and drugs is important for many reasons – but did you know people who use early are much more likely to develop lifelong substance abuse problems? The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has found that people who begin using alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop abuse or dependence than people who first begin to drink at 21. The risk climbs even higher for those who have family histories of alcoholism or drug addiction.

More than 23 million people over the age of 12 are addicted to alcohol or drugs, according to the NCADD. That’s a staggering figure. So clearly, prevention is an important strategy to reduce the devastating effects of addiction.

More about the problem

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey is conducted by several state agencies to gain a better understanding of drug and alcohol use in young people across the state. In 2015, the survey found that among Cambria County youth, alcohol is the most common early initiation or higher prevalence substance used, at 44.7% vs. 43.9% across the state.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in teens and young people – and alcohol and drug abuse is a risk factor for suicide in all ages. In fact, the strongest predictor of suicide is alcoholism, and people with substance use problems are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. About one in three people who commit suicide are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

What’s being done locally

A variety of prevention programs are being presented in Johnstown-area school districts, including Botvin LifeSkills Training. This evidence-based program (that is, research has shown that it is effective) teaches teens to avoid risky behaviors like using alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. It educates them about the dangers of substance abuse, but more importantly, it helps increase their self-esteem and self-confidence, resist peer pressure, and make healthy choices.

There are several agencies in Johnstown working to combat the problem, focusing on not only prevention but also treatment. These include Cambria County Drug and Alcohol, which can help people find inpatient treatment regardless of health insurance status. The Cambria County Drug Coalition is working to unify efforts to reduce illicit drug use and overdose deaths through prevention, treatment, and law enforcement.

How you can help keep young people in your life from using alcohol and drugs

The most important thing parents and role models can do is to talk about it. It’s never too early to start the conversation about drugs and alcohol with kids. According to NCADD, one in three kids have had a drink by age 13, a percentage that jumps to 50% by age 15. Research shows that kids who learn about the risks from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use. Experts recommend talking with kids early and often, and being honest when they ask questions.

Role-playing drinking situations with older kids can help prepare them to respond appropriately if they are offered a drink or drugs. It can also be helpful to tell stories about drinking from when you were a teen – this helps open the line of communication, and demonstrates that you understand the pressures they’re facing.

Kids also need to understand their own risk factors for addiction, based on their family history. Children of addicted parents are very high risk for becoming addicted themselves due to genetic and environmental reasons. It’s important to be open with your kids about family history of addiction.

Modeling appropriate behavior about alcohol and drugs is important, too. You should be open about your own drinking habits, and honest about the purpose of any prescription medication you take. So if you suspect you have a substance abuse problem, seek help – you’ll be helping your children, too.

Encouraging your child to engage in positive, wholesome activities at school, church, and in the community promotes self-esteem and helps reduce the risk they’ll become involved with drugs and alcohol. Pay attention to what your kids are doing and who their friends are, and connect with their friends’ parents.

As a final note, depression , anxiety and other mood disorders are a major risk factor for alcohol and drug abuse at any age. People with depression may try to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs in an attempt to feel better, while people with anxiety may think using will help them cope with their anxiety. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to seek help for your child if you believe a serious mood disorder is present.

What to do if you or someone you love may have a problem

If you suspect you, or your teen or child, has a problem, don’t wait! The earlier you take steps to address the problem, the better. Westmont Family Counseling Ministries has counselors trained specifically in addiction disorders, and can help people of any age on an outpatient basis. We can also help connect you to inpatient treatment programs if that’s indicated. In addition, there are many resources available locally that can be researched and accessed through the Cambria County Drug & Alcohol Program or Cambria County Drug Coalition.

Family members of people with substance abuse problems often feel isolated and alone as they struggle to find ways to support their loved ones without enabling their destructive behavior. That’s why Westmont Family Counseling Ministries offers Sanity Group, a support group for family members of addicted people. This free, open format group is facilitated by a counselor with specialized training in this area, and provides education, resources and encouragement for people coping with this family disease.

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