Effective Drug Abuse Prevention Focuses on Personality

Early initiation of illegal substances such as alcohol and drugs can amplify many of their risks. Experts believe that some of the effects of drugs and alcohol may be more potent in teens because the brain is still developing, causing changes in cognitive structure and function.

There are other concerns, such as an increased likelihood that the individual who begins using an addictive substance casually during the teen years could develop an addiction. During this critical period, individuals are often making important decisions about career and family.

A study provides evidence that focusing on personality, rather than on behaviors, may help teens who are at risk for substance use, and may help treat those who are already using drugs or alcohol.

The research team compared a program called the Adventure trial with standard school-based interventions among 2,548 year ten students in England. All of the students were 13 or 14 years old.

In the study, teachers were given training in providing alcohol-abuse interventions to children of one of four personality traits that are associated with increased risk of alcohol and drug use. The four personality traits identified are sensitivity to anxiety, hopelessness, impulsivity and thrill-seeking.

Each of the 21 schools selected to participate in the trial were randomly assigned to use the Adventure intervention, which utilized knowledge of the four personality traits, or the national addiction-prevention curriculum. In both strategies, the students answered questions about alcohol-related behaviors, including binge drinking and frequency of alcohol consumption. The questions were repeated over two years at six-month intervals.

At the end of two years, the students enrolled at schools employing the Adventure curriculum had a 29 percent lower rate of alcohol consumption compared with those students receiving the national education curriculum. High risk teens in the Adventure program had a 43 percent lower binge drinking rate when compared with high risk teens in traditional curriculums.

In addition, high-risk predictors, such as exhibiting dangerous behaviors, was shown to be reduced by 42 percent among those receiving the Adventure program among high risk students, and 24 percent among the low risk group.

The authors of the study point out that the reductions in drinking behaviors measured in this trial are impressive, particularly when compared with various prevention programs that focus on behaviors. For instance, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) has exhibited minimal changes in student alcohol consumption, with best estimates showing binge drinking being reduced by 10 percent.

While many prevention and intervention programs for teens target behaviors and teach how to respond differently to cues, the Adventure program focuses on helping teens understand their reactions to certain situations. For instance, a person who struggles with anxiety may drink alcohol as a way to self-medicate against the distress they experience in a social situation.

Experts are chiming in with the authors to say that a mental health-focused strategy in attacking alcohol and drug prevention may be more promising than simply educating kids about the risks and dangers of using drugs and alcohol. Lead author Patricia Conrad of King’s College London and the University of Montreal says that kids with different personalities try alcohol for different reasons.

Rather than addressing behaviors that involve drugs or alcohol in a direct way, the teachers in the program were trained to talk about how individuals can respond to life situations. The curriculum used the same principles used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help, for example, an anxious student navigate a stressful situation. The curriculum was provided in two sessions, each lasting 90 minutes, and each designed to address a specific personality profile.

The findings may have a significant impact on the education, prevention and intervention efforts aimed at teens in schools. Rather than teaching a blanket curriculum that encourages students to not use drugs because of the side effects and risks, it may be more effective to help students with specific personality traits to navigate life.