Spotlight: Access Health’s Role in Preventing Youth Substance Use

What is Prevention?

Public health prevention means intervening before negative health impacts occur. We practice prevention in our everyday lives through vaccinations, healthy eating, altering risky behaviors known to be associated with diseases and harmful health conditions.[1]

An essential piece of prevention focuses on substance use, specifically geared towards children and young adults. Prevention plays a critical role for adolescents, as they develop their identity, important life skills, and seek out new experiences as they become more independent. During this time of growth teens are faced with a variety of social situations that often present high-risk choices, such as using substances like alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, including vaping products.  The desire to experiment or misuse both legal and illegal substances can unknowingly create potentially life-threatening habits and lasting health conditions.[2]

Science tells us that the parts of the brain that control judgment and decision-making do not fully develop until the early to mid-20’s.[3] Children and adolescents are limited when accurately assessing the risks of substance use. When substance use or misuse occurs, it can often result in disrupted brain functions concerning motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and behavior control later in life.[4]

Substance use is preventable, and prevention works. Prevention strategies take aim at how people think, feel, and act by focusing messages and activities on areas of influence such as the individual, family, or community.[5] Research has identified interventions that successfully reduce rates of youth substance use as well as factors that increase or decrease the risk of teens initiating use.[6] School and community-based efforts, positive social-norming campaigns, family-centered initiatives, and building social resistance skills have been recognized as tools to prevent youth substance use.


Access Health’s Role in Youth Substance Use Prevention

Access Health’s substance use prevention team is comprised of certified substance use prevention specialists and public health professionals utilizing a nationally recognized six-step Strategic Prevention Framework to deliver substance use prevention efforts targeted towards youth in Maine’s southern Mid Coast communities, specifically Sagadahoc County, Brunswick, and Harpswell.[7]

Using local and statewide data, we work to identify trends in use, risk factors, and protective factors to educate develop interventions to reach youth, educators, parents, and the communities we serve. For example, studies show that influential adults play a critical role in determining how teens think about alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and other substances. Talking to children early on about substance use and increasing family connectedness have been proven to protect youth from initiating or continuing use.[8] Using this information, Access Health created an evidence-based campaign specifically designed to educate parents and caregivers on the importance of parental monitoring and steps they can take to be in-sync with their teen while creating connectedness.

Our team has designed several evidence-based initiatives including a youth marijuana and young adult furnishing prevention campaign directed towards early adolescents and high school students. The Big Green Box initiative has established medication collection boxes for safely disposing unwanted medications in law enforcement agencies in various communities, resulting in over twelve thousand pounds of discarded medications over the past five years.  Community-wide trainings educate local liquor licensed establishments to prevent underage drinking, while an anonymous tip line, etip2, provides both youth and adults with a safe way to report underage substance use and concerns that endanger youth. Additionally, we collaborate with local schools and Maine’s juvenile justice system to deliver the Student Intervention and Reintegration Program (SIRP) to students experimenting with substance use, teaching them about high-risk choices and the development of substance use disorders.

Prevention staff work within communities to share the dangers of underage substance use and promote protective factors tied to substance use prevention.  For community-based prevention to be successful, collaboration is essential and has proven to strengthen relationships between public and private organizations, address factors that increase the risk of substance misuse for youth, and support environmental strategies that improve the health and well-being of our communities. As a comprehensive community coalition, Access Health has established and fostered several partnerships with law enforcement, business owners, legislators, health care professionals, parent groups, schools, and other local organizations to create and implement community-based interventions to reach our goals.

Access Health’s substance use prevention team continues promote positive social norms community-wide, educate adolescents and parents, while supporting schools and local organizations in preventing substance use for the youth population.


[4] Fowler JS, Volkow ND, Kassed CA, Chang L. Imaging the addicted human brain. Sci Pract Perspect 3(2):4-16, 2007.
[8] QEV Analytics, Ltd, Knowledge Networks, 2010