In 2014, I took on the role of Executive Director at then, Team Fort Collins. Coming from a background in law enforcement and business, I had a steep learning curve ahead of me when it came to public health and prevention science. In that first year, admittedly. I often got “talked of the table” by highly educated professionals from the public health world. They used buzz words, jargon and vernacular that was very foreign to me. However, due to my experience as a narcotics detective, I had something that cannot be learned in a classroom or lecture hall and certainly cannot be explained in a book. I had met and spoken in-depth with literally thousands of people suffering from substance use disorder. I had come to understand and recognize the common characteristics that encircle the life of an individual suffering from substance use disorder. I gained a unique view into the struggle of addiction and the negative impact it has on an individual’s life, family, relationship and the community as a whole.

In my first year as TEAM’s Director, I began a process of syncing my life experience to the academia of public health and prevention science. One concept that has resonated and is the basis of our prevention work at TEAM is the concept of “Risk and Protective Factors” and the idea that there are shared risk and protective factors that impact all risky youth behaviors and disorders. Research shows that the risk for substance abuse and other adverse behaviors increases as the number of risk factors increases, and that protective factors may reduce the risk of youth engaging in substance use that can lead to substance abuse. This interactive effect of risk and protective factors has substantial implications for the design and implementation of successful preventive interventions. The more a program reduces risk factors and increases protective factors, the more it is likely to succeed in preventing substance abuse among children and youth.

The critical element of this philosophy is that it is these risk factors, both biological and sociological, that drive substance use disorder, not the substances themselves. What does that mean when it comes to prevention work? It means that we need to shift how we conduct prevention education. Once we understand the why, it is less important to educate on the what. In other words, once we understand what risk factors cause substance use disorder and other risky activities, we need to educate and impact these risk factors as opposed to educating youth about what substance are out there. With that in mind, it is only logical that educating youth about substances without the benefit of educating and impacting risk and protective factors can be a dangerous approach. In the 1980’s we essentially were providing youth who had high risk factors and low protective factors with information on what substances are available and their effects of those substances. Virtually giving them a guidebook on what drug to use to cope with the risk factors in their lives. This logic explains why prevention tactics from the 1980’s were largely ineffective on those who were at high risk of substance use disorder. It also helps to understand why they were relatively effective with youth who were at low risk and who had high protective factors prevention abuse.

Thankfully our knowledge has increased and we can apply a more informed approach to preventing substance use disorder in the communities that we serve. In addition, by applying the risk and protective factor approach, we can have a broad impact on youth and community health.

Gordon Coombes