What Is Personality-Targeted Prevention?

When it comes to substance use and addiction among young people, many parents know that early prevention and intervention are key. This is because early initiation in using drugs or alcohol can rewire the developing brain structure of teens and adolescents to favor the pleasure reward circuitry brought by substances, rather than common activities. This increases the risk of a long-term dependency on drugs.

The Critical Years of Teen and Adolescent Health

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, in the United States, over 90% of addictions have originated in the teenage years. The median age of onset for illicit drug use and alcohol use is 14 years old. Over five million adolescents in America now suffer from a substance use disorder.

There can be signs of concern even before young people are exposed to drugs that are available in their environment. Behavioral scientists and the broader medical community have developed evidence-based, selective prevention programs that target a subset of young people who might be at higher risk of developing problems with drugs and alcohol in the future. For example, in 2017, over 3.2 million U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode.

Four Types of High-Risk Personality

Based on the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale (SURPS), there are four types of personalities that are considered to be at a higher risk of developing substance-related problems. The first is people with Negative Thinking. They often demonstrate low self-esteem because of negative beliefs held about themselves, others, and the future. This behavioral indicator is consistent with what recovery specialists have long pointed out about how poor mental health (low self-esteem and depression) among young people is highly associated with the risk for drugs and alcohol.

The second personality type is characterized by Anxiety Sensitivity. The fear of anxiety-related physical sensations may lead to substance use in young adulthood. Young people with this personality type may also be more responsive to the temporary, anxiety-reducing effects of drugs and alcohol. Over time, however, they will develop panic-related disorders that co-occur with substance addiction.

The third personality type is centered around Impulsivity. People in this category tend to make hasty decisions and demonstrate poor response inhibition. 

The last personality type is characterized by Sensation Seeking, where there is a constant need for stimulation and risk-taking. Once people in this category have access to drugs and alcohol, they tend to develop heavy consumption patterns. The trajectory to addiction can be a short sprint. Both of these personality types may evolve into anti-social and risk-taking behaviors.

Operationalizing Early Prevention 

The rationale of early prevention is easy to understand, but it can be hard to implement. Personality-targeted prevention has been proven to be an effective way to proactively prevent substance use among young people. By targeting personality risk factors before the onset of mental health emergencies or substance use issues, this approach has the advantage of involving youth who might be functioning well or not yet experiencing problems.

Personality-targeted prevention can also be built into a skill-building activity so that it is less intimidating for youths to participate in. Trials of such behavioral programs have succeeded in attracting 70% to 85% of youth to voluntarily participate. Integrating personality-specific skills with group therapy has also increased engagement and empathy among young people.

Screening Psychological Risk Factors

Personality-targeted prevention relies on a set of assessment tools, such as cognitive-behavioral and motivational interviewing. This requires interventionists to be familiar with the psychological risk factors and know how to have engaging dialogues with high-risk youth.

Such a prevention and intervention approach may best benefit the teen and adolescent population by reducing bullying. Identifying a wide range of contextual risk factors such as socioeconomic status and feelings of marginalization at school while providing high-risk youth with skill-building workshops can empower them to better cope with environmental stressors.

It takes an army of responsible parents, educators, and medical professionals to build a system of early prevention and screening to fight against the worsening substance use epidemic among teens and adolescents. We all have a role to play in helping young people gain insight into their actions, cope with difficult situations, and care for their mental health.

Parents, of all responsible parties, are in the best position to screen for psychological risk factors. Even when your teenager pulls away and is eager for more independence, deep down they still want your involvement. A stronger bond with your teen or adolescent can help reduce the chances of them developing unhealthy behaviors. This can be especially effective if you communicate the reason why you are interested in their actions and whereabouts. 

Research in the medical community has informed early intervention programs that target certain high-risk young people. Certain psychological factors are more likely to be associated with substance use and addiction. Parents and educators need to be more well-informed on how to identify early signs of substance use tendencies, because early intervention is key. Young people's habits of substance use may negatively impact them in the long run. At South Florida Intervention, our professionally-trained interventionists have helped many teens and young adults reach and maintain sobriety. We consider it an honor to work with families and young people. They can benefit from recovery coaching and parent coaching while staying connected with a strong and supportive recovery community. South Florida Intervention is the portal to a strong support system. We offer a range of services, from recovery coaching and parent coaching to sober escort and case management. Call us today at (202) 390-2273.