A recent article by Celia Vimont in the Newsroom (January 8, 2014) from The Partnership at Drugfree.org discussed the importance of including health problems when treating individuals with substance abuse disorders. In that article, Dr. Sharone Abramowitz, MD, provided expert commentary that it is important to focus on improving health and not just address relapse prevention.

The same is true for substance abuse prevention with young people. Helping youth to improve their health and well-being can also assist in their avoidance of addictive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and prescription drug misuse. However, addiction and health professionals often ignore the wellness needs of youth and young adults.

When preventing substance abuse, we should not forget the whole youth. Focusing too narrowly on preventing one or more addictive substances blinds us to broader approaches for enhancing the greater, overall health of young people.

Because youth are likely to experience multiple, co-existing health risk behaviors, they need help addressing more than one problem at a time. Since many health behaviors are interrelated, by addressing them in combination increases the chances of youth experiencing success in multiple life areas, while improving self-control skills to successfully avoid substance abuse.

A whole health approach is not widespread in the prevention field. For example, we can be very focused on preventing specific risk behaviors, like prescription drug use, or smokeless tobacco consumption, or the latest synthetic substance used by youth in our communities.

There is increasing recognition, however, that youth and families need a different kind of health system than one that just focuses on prevention of single risks. An asset-based approach which targets wellness promotion along with prevention of risks like substance abuse has multiple advantages. These include being more interesting to and improving participation among youth and parents, increasing the size and breadth of health and other positive youth development outcomes, and enhancing cost-effectiveness of our prevention efforts.

Many young people are experimenting with or using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana or other addictive substances. But at the same time, they are also not getting regular physical activity, eating enough healthy foods, getting adequate sleep, and practicing stress management in their daily lives.

Youth service providers can easily help youth by asking them about a number of their current health habits. Then, they can provide brief, positive messages illustrating that substance use interferes with their achieving healthy behaviors and positive self-image. It’s an approach which links prevention of substance abuse with the broader promotion of wellness and positive youth development.

In addition, asking youth to set both prevention and wellness behavior goals will help them make a commitment to improve their mental and physical health and life success. Helping youth to set and monitor multiple behavior goals works if you give youth reasons for making a commitment to do so. This means showing them how both substance abuse and healthy habits are associated, and by avoiding the former and setting concrete, short-term goals to increase the later they will feel and look better.

Lastly, giving youth and their families opportunities to revisit and revise their youth’s goal plans to advance the overall health and well-being is important for enhancing self-efficacy and self-control. Positive changes in health promoting behaviors will result in more success to avoid and reduce substance abuse, which will also further improve self-image.

The ultimate goal for prevention and health specialists is to have youth and families learn how health enhancing behaviors like regular physical activity and eating healthy will not only result in positive behavior and image achievement for youth, but will also reduce the risk of substance use. At the same time, knowing that substance abuse will interfere with living a healthy and successful lifestyle, as well as improving your self-image, is an essential lesson all young people need to learn to improve their whole health.

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