President’s Letter: Student Substance Use Prevention

The State of Mental Health in America (2018) ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia according to the prevalence of mental illness and access to care. Oregon ranks first—the highest in the nation—for mental health and substance use issues. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among Oregon youth. The consequences are great as 44 percent of fatal car crashes in Oregon involve alcohol. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal:
  • 12- to 20-year-olds consume 11 percent of all alcohol sold in the U.S.
  • 90 percent of that alcohol is consumed during “binge drinking” (five or more drinks at one time)
  • Underage drinking results in more than 4,300 youth deaths per year in the U.S.
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that adolescent drug use is decreasing with the exception of marijuana. Although marijuana is an illegal substance under U.S. Federal Law, it is legal for recreational use in the state of Oregon; however, any underage use of marijuana is illegal. The rate of marijuana use was already high in Oregon before the state legalized recreational use. The legalization of recreational and medical marijuana is associated with a higher prevalence of marijuana use among youth due to perceived norms that favor marijuana use, including lower levels of parental disapproval. Another possible factor is that marijuana has become more visible and accessible to youth due to the growth of dispensaries and advertising. Marijuana use during adolescence is associated with negative consequences including increased risk of accidental injury, fatal car crashes, respiratory illness, mental health issues, impaired cognitive functioning, impaired brain development, and a greater risk of drug dependence into adulthood.

The Role of School Counselors in Substance Use Prevention and Intervention

American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Position: School counselors work collaboratively with students, families, school administration and community members to implement a preventive, comprehensive school counseling program, which includes early warning systems for identifying students who may be engaging in harmful or risky behaviors, as well as developmentally appropriate, culturally sensitive interventions and supports addressing those behaviors and promoting student resilience and success (ASCA, 2017).
  • School counselors collaborate with other educators and stakeholders to provide prevention, early identification and trauma-informed interventions for all students to minimize or eliminate harmful behaviors that may place students at risk.
  • School counselors use evidence-based practices to provide school counseling lessons to increase students’ knowledge and awareness of the dangers of harmful behaviors while promoting resiliency skills. School counselors support their students to decrease risk factors and increase protective factors.
  • School counselors know the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse among students and prevalent drug and alcohol abuse in the home.
  • School counselors refer students and families to appropriate support services, which requires knowledge of school and community-based prevention programs, mental health and treatment resources.
Prevention Education 
School Counselors implement their school districts’ health and wellness curriculum to address the prevention needs of their schools. Ideally, prevention education is based on brain development research. Adults who work with and parent teenagers must have an understanding of adolescent brain research. Education about their developing brains is empowering for students so they can make healthy choices.

First and foremost, adolescents need to understand that their limbic system, which is responsible for emotional regulation and memory, is fully developed while their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, judgment, problem solving and decision making, is still developing. Neuroscientists have discovered that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop until people reach their mid-20s or even early 30s. These differences in the development of the brain may result in teens acting impulsively, seeking pleasure, taking big risks and overreacting with strong emotions.

Impulsivity and risk taking peaks during adolescence, which puts teens at great risk for drug and alcohol use. However, risk taking can also generate positive behaviors, so school counselors promote healthy risks because teenagers are thrill-seekers and risk-takers by nature. At the same time, teenagers have a natural tendency to feel depressed and to experience powerful emotions due to changes in their brain chemistry and hormonal fluctuations. These strong emotions may also put teens at risk for drug and alcohol use and abuse.

The adolescent brain is in a heightened stage of development that results in a window of sensitivity and window of opportunity. The teen brain is especially vulnerable to trauma, including damage caused by drugs and alcohol use. Exposure to drugs and alcohol can impact brain development, brain function, education and physical performance. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, as explained by adolescent brain research.

As school counselors, we can support adolescents’ developing brains by being present, patient and consistent; providing structure and order; helping students set and reach goals; providing choices and affirming students’ successes.

Resources Recommended Websites Recommended Books
“Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Dr. Daniel Seigel
“The Primal Teen” by Barbara Strauch
“Why Do They Act That Way?” by David Walsh
Contact Laura Barbour, OSCA president, at