Developing Strategies to Prevent Substance Abuse

Girl studying

About 10% of adolescents suffer from depression, and roughly the same percentage of youth have substance abuse problems. While these numbers might seem alarming, Dr. Cari McCarty believes they also contain reasons for hope.

“As we find out exactly how common these problems are and who is likely to have them, it means we can develop new prevention strategies,” she said.

McCarty’s lab is leading an ambitious study, called Developmental Pathways to Alcohol Use, that examines what causes middle- and high-school students to experiment with alcohol. The study has found that adolescents who are stressed or depressed are more likely to start drinking. Other predictors include having parents or friends who tolerate substance use, and not being involved in healthy extracurricular activities.

Pinpointing these risk factors helps McCarty investigate ways to defuse them. This is critical because her research has shown that kids who try substances before age 14 are more likely to abuse them later. McCarty has found that one of the most powerful prevention strategies is for parents to build close, communicative relationships with their children.

“When kids can talk to their parents about what they’re going through and get emotional support, it can reduce the emotional issues that might trigger substance use,” McCarty said.

Unfortunately, some parents can’t cope with stress or substance problems themselves, making it hard for them to offer effective guidance. The good news is, other adults can have a powerful, positive impact. McCarty recently found that middle school students who can talk to a teacher about their problems are less likely to experiment with alcohol.

“We always knew that middle school teachers were important but this is the first time anyone has shown that close teacher-student relationships can prevent early alcohol use,” McCarty said.

Now McCarty is spearheading another study, called Middle School Matters, that tests ways to help children cope with stress and depression. Among other things, McCarty’s team is teaching 7th and 8th graders ways to use positive thoughts and actions to break out of negative thought patterns. This could give them tools to manage their emotional issues before they become overwhelming.

McCarty sees the study as another step toward finding ways to prevent behavioral problems and their lifelong consequences.