Recovering from substance abuse is incredibly difficult, and for many people, it is a lifelong journey. It stands to reason, then, that preventing substance abuse from ever happening would be a serious goal. While there is no foolproof way to prevent substance abuse in every situation, there are some good ways to start.
Pay attention during transitional times
Risk of substance abuse increases during times of transition. For a child or teenager this might mean when moving, starting a new school, or enduring the divorce of your parents. For an adult, a transition can be similar; a new or lost job, moving, and divorce can put you at greater risk.
If you’re hoping to prevent substance abuse in your friends and loved ones, pay special attention to them during these kinds of transitional times. Be willing to listen without judgment, and remember that sometimes people need support and acceptance more than they need critical commentary or judgment. Encourage your friend or loved one to engage in acts of self-care such as attending therapy, job training, or support groups.
If you are concerned about a child or teenager, help them access counseling if they need it. Realize that they may not be able to articulate their problems as easily as adults can. Be patient, and give them the chance to speak their mind on their own timetable.
And naturally, if you’re concerned about yourself, realize that during transitional times your pressures can feel even more severe than usual. Be ready to reach out to reliable friends and family for help.
Create a healthy schedule
A healthy, fulfilling schedule is a great weapon in the struggle against substance abuse. This is even true for people who are in recovery. Make sure the days you spend with your family member or friend are filled with the necessary activities of school and work, and positive, constructive activities. Engaging in sports, the arts, and other activities that engage your body and/or mind help maintain a level of focus that can maintain a substance-free lifestyle.
Of course, no one should have a schedule without free time in it. How can you prevent substance abuse while still respecting free time and creating space for spontaneous fun? Keep a solid list of possibilities handy—a vetted list of activities that you know are fun for you, easily accessible, and keep you entertained when you choose to do them. This way, when you come upon some free time, you have lots of options for filling it, none of which involve substance abuse.
Recognize signs of a problem whenever they present
No one wants to believe they might have a problem with addiction. However, many of us do—and we don’t always know until we start using alcohol or other substances. Of course the simplest way to avoid problems is to abstain entirely, but few people make it through life that way.
If you or someone you care about already uses alcohol and/or a drug, take an honest inventory of the patterns of use and behaviors you see unfolding. Don’t bury signs of a problem. If you recognize patterns of addiction in your own behavior or that of someone close to you, speak up now.
Manage mental illness
Not everyone who abuses substances suffers from mental illness. However, it is very common to see people with unresolved mental health problems or untreated mental illness also suffer from substance abuse issues. One reason for this is that it can be incredibly challenging and painful to cope with mental illness, and people who are not receiving adequate care and treatment may self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to ease their pain.
If you or someone you know struggles with depression, anxiety, or any kind of mental health problem, don’t feel ashamed. Millions of Americans experience mental illness—about one in five. Get help for your mental illness and you will be in far less danger of resorting to substance abuse. If your friend or loved one needs treatment for their mental illness, help them get it. Let them know you support them, and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Know what you’re looking for
If you’re concerned that someone you care about might be drifting toward substance abuse, be aware of the ways that substance abuse develops. Substance abuse typically starts with recreational use of alcohol or other addictive substances. It progresses to seeking out a state of intoxication each time that substance is used; a substance abuser can’t have a single drink, for example, but needs to get drunk. A corollary is the abuse of prescription drugs, using them in greater amounts and more often than prescribed, and without underlying medical need.
Another thing to be aware of is risk and protective factors. People with many risk factors and few protective factors are most likely to abuse substances. Some common risk factors include:
- aggressive behavior, especially early in life
- lack of parental supervision in children, support network in adults
- peers who abuse substances
- substance availability
In contrast, risk factors include:
- demonstrated self-control
- parental supervision/strong support network
- peers who don’t use substances and model appropriate behaviors
- anti-drug use policies at school for children, at work and in industry for adults
- strong neighborhood culture
Peer pressure and support networks
Surround yourself with people you want to emulate, people you admire and respect. This is good advice for both children and adults. It is very difficult to develop healthy relationships and friendships with people who urge you to abuse substances. This kind of peer pressure doesn’t disappear when you graduate from high school; it is part of life for adults, too, and you need to be ready to resist it.
Instead of a web of acquaintances that subject you to peer pressure and suck you into their problems, work to create a support network. Your network can be people who like the same healthy activities that you do; for example, people who like to play a sport you enjoy or who watch the same shows. They are friends and family who support you, and want you to be healthy.
The bottom line
Preventing substance abuse isn’t always easy. If it was, everyone would do it. However, a little bit of attention and effort can go a long way in the battle to help friends, family, and other loved ones stay clean and sober. By paying attention during transitional times, creating a healthy schedule, recognizing clear signs of substance abuse, managing mental illness, knowing what you’re looking for, and swapping peer pressure for support networks, you can help prevent substance abuse.