How We Can Help Adolescents Avoid Drugs and Alcohol Abuse

Substance abuse is a complex issue that affects not just individuals, but entire communities, and it’s a key focus of Reach Out’s efforts across the Inland Empire. Dr. Robert LaChausse, an expert in the field, has been a long-time partner of Reach Out, and we recently met with him to discuss evidence-based approaches to substance abuse prevention.

Dr. LaChausse is a professor at California Baptist University who runs the Program Evaluation and Prevention research lab in the Department of Public Health Sciences there. A developmental psychologist by training, he explains that his interest for the past 30 years has been focused on why people do what they do as it relates to their health. Primarily, why do children and teenagers do certain things that they know are not beneficial to their health? 

The Problem with Traditional Approaches

Dr. LaChausse is quick to point out that traditional prevention methods, such as bringing in police officers or members of Alcoholics Anonymous to talk to kids, are ineffective, based on 40 years of evidence demonstrating that these efforts have little effect. Scare tactics, which aim to frighten individuals into abstaining from substance use, have been shown to be largely ineffective. Similarly, the “Every Fifteen Minutes” program, which involves staged car crashes and mock funerals to dramatize the consequences of impaired driving, has faced criticism for its lack of long-term effectiveness. 

Dr. LaChausse’s point is clear: prevention strategies need to be evidence-based and multifaceted. Relying solely on scare tactics or dramatic presentations can divert resources away from more effective, science-backed methods of prevention. Therefore, it’s crucial to focus on what actually works, such as community policies, school-based programs like Project Alert, and law enforcement involvement in enforcing ordinances and conducting tobacco sales checks, to make a real difference in combating substance abuse.

A lot of the familiar programs “feel” like they should be effective, and seem like common sense, which is why educators and legislators continue to fund them. But Dr. LaChausse makes an interesting observation about the fact that medical interventions require trained and licensed professionals – shouldn’t behavioral and psychological interventions as well? He says, “I think one of the institutional and cultural problems we have is that these police officers, firefighters, those people are not trained in prevention.”

What Actually Works in Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention

Drawing from his extensive research and experience, Dr. LaChausse calls for a more scientific approach, and he is not the only voice asking school boards and legislators to reconsider their methods. The National Institutes of Health advocates for evidence-based programs as well, citing decades of research. 

Teaching kids specific skills and giving them the opportunity to practice those skills is a proven method for reducing susceptibility in situations where adolescents may encounter drug and alcohol use. Learning to recognize, manage, and avoid situations where risky behaviors are going on is one skill, while employing the skill of assertive communication is another Dr. LaChausse suggests. 

“We have to give them the skills so that when they encounter a risk situation that can lead to alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, they can employ those skills that they’ve learned, maybe in school or in a community-based agency or a church, and they’ll be less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.”

The Role of Parents

Parents can play a significant role in prevention, and Dr. LaChausse suggests that they should be actively involved in their school’s PTA and attend school board meetings to advocate for evidence-based prevention programs. He also emphasizes the importance of parental monitoring, stating, “the best predictor of whether or not a teenager will use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs is whether or not their parents are effective monitors of their behavior.”

Community Policies Matter

Dr. LaChausse highlights the importance of community policies in supporting prevention efforts. For example, he mentions the implementation of a social host ordinance in the city of Jurupa Valley, which penalizes those who provide alcohol to minors. He says, “So in Jurupa, you have stuff directly going on with the school in terms of an effective drug prevention program with kids, but you also have policies that reduce youth access to alcohol.” Reach Out has been pivotal in getting several substance use related ordinances passed throughout the Inland Empire that strengthen safety for all youth. 

According to Dr. LaChausse, a multifaceted and multi-level approach to prevention is essential. This involves schools, parents, community organizations, and policymakers all working together.

“Successful prevention of the consequences of substance abuse is going to take this multi-pronged approach from a number of different entities and people in order to really be effective.”

And the first step, he notes, is to make sure that those funding current programs are really asking questions about whether or not they work. The Every Fifteen Minutes program requires an enormous outlay of resources – and in a country where we spend ten cents on prevention for every seven dollars spent on rehabilitation, arrest, adjudication, and incarceration, that money is hard to come by. 

Communities and Local Government Stand to See Economic Benefit from Effective Prevention

Lastly, Dr. LaChausse points out that effective prevention not only keeps kids on a healthy developmental trajectory but also has economic benefits for the community, given the enormous costs of substance abuse described above. He says, “So if you can go to somebody and explain that implementing an evidence-based prevention curriculum in a school district might save a community a half a million dollars, that’s going to get the attention of policymakers.”

Dr. Robert LaChausse provides a comprehensive look at the importance of evidence-based approaches to substance abuse prevention and makes a compelling case for a multi-pronged strategy involving parents, schools, and community policies. As he aptly puts it, “We will not be able to adjudicate and arrest our way out of the substance use and abuse epidemic.” 

It’s time for a more scientific, evidence-based approach to make a real impact.

Learn more about a variety of evidence-based substance abuse prevention initiatives.

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