The Importance of Youth Leaders in Substance Abuse Prevention

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For many young people today, the word prevention is complicated. Some might think that prevention doesn’t affect them, and some might not think about it at all.

However, most youth, probably more than even they are aware of, are actively working to prevent the initiation of substance abuse, on both the individual and the peer level. The reality is: Youth cannot always see prevention at work, not because it is too small to make enough of a difference, but because it is so big and deeply rooted in their lives that they are a part of it.

As coalition leaders know, “When prevention works, nothing happens.” Meaning that when our efforts to prevent dangerous drug abuse and misuse truly work, none of the negative effects and dangers associated with them arise.

Prevention shapes the world around youth, thanks to coalition members and young leaders who are change agents. Even the student who simply says, “No thanks, I’m good” when offered a cigarette is an example of prevention working. When they don’t drink at a party because they have a game the next day, that is prevention working.

Prevention works, and spreading this message among strong youth leaders and their peers is imperative to create community-level change. This idea is what drives CADCA’s National Youth Leadership Initiative (NYLI): not showing youth how to be great, but showing them that they already are great — and teaching them how to effectively make a difference in their communities, whether it be with prevention work, leadership skills or other forms of character building. These changes can include decreased levels of favorable attitudes and norms toward the substance, and, of course, decreased use and abuse of the substance.

[Related: We Need to Talk with Youth About Substance Use and SBIRT Is the Way to Do It]

A coalition without youth involvement is fighting an uphill battle against substance use. In NYLI, we follow the motto, “Youth Led, Adult Guided.” This foundation is key in facilitating a comprehensive coalition of both adults and youth alike.

Adult coalition members are key in guiding the youth involved, just as youth are the experts of what’s going on around them. They can provide key insights to coalition members and leaders to help them effectively reach their peers and create lasting change. Inspiring these skills within youth is powerful, and it shows in the growing pool of data documenting the reduction of substance use and misperceptions of harm. Which is useful information, knowing that misperceptions of marijuana continue to rise, especially among youth.

If you are reading this and are part of a coalition without a youth group, take this as a challenge to start cultivating this vital sector. You will see community-level changes take place beyond prevention of drug abuse.

If you do have a youth group, allow yourself to be a resource and a mentor to your youth. Challenge them to create a diverse and growing community of active, inspired change agents. Because youth aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today.

Ian Solnosky is CADCA’s youth programs associate. In the past, he has worked with CADCA and the Washington, District of Columbia, Department of Behavioral Health on youth presentations and documentary films on prevention work and community issues.

More related articles:

Anxiety, Substance Abuse and the Cycle of Diminishing Returns

An Old Message from the Drug War: Just Say No to Marijuana

Reframing the Opioid Epidemic: Lawmakers Must Put Children First