Skip to main menu Skip to content
The Role of Connection to School Community in Preventing Youth Substance Use

About half of youth report not feeling a genuine sense of belonging at school.

This surprising finding comes from the latest needs assessment conducted with over 600 youth ages 13-18 across the United States as part of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s Getting Candid: Framing the Conversation Around Youth Substance Use Prevention initiative, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Belonging is defined as the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, a sports team, or a place of education or worship, humans have an inherent desire to belong and contribute to a collective group greater than themselves.

Belonging also happens to be a well-established protective factor against youth substance use, and a central contributor to ones’ overall sense of wellbeing. But it is not just general belonging, youth who feel connected to their schools specifically, are less likely to engage in many risky behaviors. Feeling a sense of belonging to ones’ school buffers against drug use behaviors and norms of students, while feelings of school isolation and disconnectedness appear to contribute to higher rates of drug use and earlier initiation to drugs.

Schools continue to serve as the central institution where youth ages 13-18 spend the majority of their time, and so having a sense of belonging within the school community is no doubt important. It is also possible that the two years of remote learning, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have had a negative effect on youths’ sense of belonging within their schools.

What can schools do to increase belonging and prevent substance use?

Regardless of the reason, working to increase students’ sense of belonging is vital to substance use prevention efforts, and our ability to turn the tide on the rising opioid overdose epidemic and rises in alcohol-related cirrhosis deaths in young adultsAlcohol and drug use among youth continues to be high, and most students report having not received any substance use prevention programming at their schools in the past 12 months.

First and foremost, we need school prevention education to be continuous and constant.  Evidence-based substance use prevention programming is effective at reducing costs across both an individual level and on a societal level. Research into the cost-benefits of substance use prevention programing indicates that for every one dollar spent on substance use prevention, yields over ten dollars in savings. School-based prevention research found that if effective school-based prevention programs were implemented nationwide, every one dollar invested would yield eighteen dollars back in savings.

Beyond the delivery of prevention education, youth need to feel safe to engage in conversations around substance use. School staff can create a welcoming environment that allows youth to feel safe and comfortable discussing sensitive or challenging topics like substance use by building trust and rapport with students, engaging parents or guardians when appropriate and keeping best practices at the forefront.

Conversations on substance use and bringing students into a shared conversation about substance use prevention can demonstrate care, which leads to feelings of belonging. Schools need to establish themselves as trusted sources for information on the harms of substance use. This can be accomplished by educating school staff on available resources such as the Getting Candid Cannabis Resource Center, best practices in prevention messages or the harms of individual substances. The more education staff has, the more accurately school staff can speak to and confidently deliver prevention messages.

Schools can work to build a network of adults that are not only trusted sources for information, but also are trained and positioned to be trusted persons for students to talk with about substance use. This asks school staff to build foundations of trust and rapport, avoid use of stigmatizing language, and to hone in on their skills around how to open collaborative dialogue with students. Schools can help guide increases in youth engagement and help-seeking behaviors around substance use by creating “safe spots” in schools for youth to discuss issues with trained personnel.

Results from the recent Getting Candid Needs Assessment also found that youth now report prioritizing their mental health over their physical health. This means that 76% of youth report that mental health is the, or is one of the, biggest priorities for them. ​Substance use prevention messaging and building a sense of belonging in students go hand-in-hand. Prevention conversations are an amazing opportunity for school staff to show their students that they care just as much about their students’ mental wellbeing as they do.  

Lastly, schools can increase belonging and abstinence from alcohol and other drugs by encouraging every student to participate in after school and extracurricular activities. Teams and clubs are a great way to make friends, build school spirit and work towards shared goals. Extracurriculars also provide supervised, structured activity that protects against youth substance use. Encouraging every single student to stay engaged with the school community even after the bell rings, should not be underestimated.

A Way Forward

While using a student’s sense of belonging as a focus point to target substance use may seem like an untraditional approach to some, the angle it provides very much aligns with the SAMSHA Strategic Prevention Framework guidance, that prevention programs 1) enhance protective factors, 2) create collaborative systems, and 3) use a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use. Belonging is a protective factor that can and should be enhanced among youth. Solutions to enhancing belonging and substance use prevention require serious collaboration between not only internal school staff, but with the students they serve, the parents, and external community partners. Effective solutions mean building comprehensive and varied solutions that range from increasing the delivery of prevention curriculum, to building trust and rapport with students, to encouraging participation in extracurricular activities. As we move forward, it is important that we remember that developing a sense of belonging does not happen overnight. It takes time, and educators today are understaffed and under resourced, making efforts around school community and substance use prevention even harder to achieve. Despite the challenges, substance use prevention programming, and the creation of school communities where students feel a sense of connection, is worth the investment. Amid the ongoing alcohol and opioid epidemics, intention towards these factors is more important now than ever for our youth. From continuous curriculum delivery, to 1-1 conversations, through care and education we can provide the foundation for students to go on to live inspiring and healthy adult lives.

The post The Role of Connection to School Community in Preventing Youth Substance Use appeared first on National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

Subscribe to the digest

Get the latest MHFA blogs delivered directly to your inbox so you never miss a post.