How does prevention add value to the community and make a difference for you? What do you think of when you hear the word prevention? How about preventing heart disease or preventing lung cancer? That’s really where the use of risk and protective factors in prevention began. Prevention theories have also been used for traffic safety. Reducing loss of life in traffic accidents by wearing seat belts. Are these prevention measures subject to personal choice? You bet. Do people still eat too much, not exercise enough, smoke cigarettes, and not wear a seat belt.? Yes, to all of the above. But have things changed over time with regard to those behaviors? Yes to that too! Do these behaviors affect every single one of us in some way? Of course.
Now, think about the differences in the ways that heart disease and tobacco use have been addressed. Heart disease, lung disease and other health problems were recognized as being preventable so we started talking about it. Doctors starting talking about it with patients and asking patients to change their behavior. They were shown direct consequences to their health. Some laws were changed to support the effort. Our culture started to change some norms around the negative behaviors that affect our health. All of these problems affect us personally and are personal choices, but they also affect the community. If more people are healthy, then costs to the public go down. If less people die in car accidents, then our community costs go down. But more than monetary costs we can talk about our culture and our community as a society that benefits from the majority of people making good choices.
We know there will always be problems. We are all humans living in proximity to one another. We are all connected in one way or another, and we all make different choices for different reasons. We can, however, make a community impact. How do community prevention and prevention science help? First of all, because it uses data so that we know where our weaknesses are in our community. We know the risk factors that are contributing to the choices that people make. Once we know those risk factors – and again, they are community-wide risk factors – we can match up strategies to address the risk factors. How long did it take for people to change their behavior around heart disease and lung disease? It didn’t happen overnight. The problem still exists but just not at the level it once was. We didn’t reach the level of change in those areas though by implementing one ad campaign or simply building awareness. It has taken decades of multifaceted efforts. We can’t hope for our prevention work to change things overnight either. Does that mean it’s not worth it or should be ignored? Of course not! If we don’t do it, absolutely nothing will change.
So, what are the problem behaviors in the community that we address through prevention? Here’s the list: Family conflict, youth who don’t think drugs and alcohol are harmful, youth who feel influenced by antisocial peers, youth who have a tendency toward antisocial and delinquent behavior, and youth who feel their community does not support them, and all of these things lead to behaviors like dropping out of school, underage drinking and drug use, adult drinking and drug use, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, students fighting in school, student truancy, and more. It doesn’t matter if you are an educator, a politician, a criminal justice professional, a stay at home mom, a business person, a church pastor, a cook, a part-time store clerk, or unemployed. Prevention will influence the choices we all make, and those you live with, work with and serve in the community.
We know through research, that with sustained efforts over time, we can reduce substance use among youth and therefore reduce substance use throughout the lifespan, reduce negative behaviors and family conflict, increase the ability of youth to make good choices, increase the value that youth place on community, and increase the ability of families to cope with adversity and stress. Prevention is worth it. Let’s add prevention as a priority in our community!
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