PROSPER prevention programs dramatically cut substance abuse among teens

Prevention is often the best medicine, not only for physical health, but also public health, according to researchers at Penn State and Iowa State University.

According to the researchers, young adults reduce their overall prescription drug misuse up to 65 percent if they are part of a community-based prevention effort while still in middle school.

The reduced substance use is significant considering the dramatic increase in prescription drug abuse, said Richard Spoth, director of the Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute at Iowa State. The research, published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, focused on programs designed to reduce the risk for substance misuse.

In a related study in a recent issue of Preventive Medicine, Penn State and Iowa State researchers found significant reduction rates for methamphetamine, marijuana, alcohol, cigarette and inhalant use. Teens and young adults also had better relationships with parents, improved life skills and few problem behaviors in general.

The research is part of a partnership between Iowa State and Penn State known as PROSPER—Promoting School-Community-University Partnerships to Enhance Resilience. PROSPER administers scientifically proven prevention programs in a community-based setting with the help of the extension systems in land grant universities.

“An important reason that the PROSPER programs are effective in reducing early substance use and conduct problems is that they are carefully timed to fit the needs of early adolescents and their parents,” said Mark T. Greenberg, holder of the Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research.

PROSPER prevention programs dramatically cut substance abuse among teens The results are based on follow-up surveys that Spoth’s and Greenberg’s teams conducted with families and teens during the six years after the teens completed PROSPER. Researchers developed the prevention programs in the 1980s and 1990s to target specific age groups. Understanding when and why adolescents experiment with drugs is a key to PROSPER’s success, according to the researchers.

“We think the programs work well because they reduce behaviors that place youth at higher risk for substance misuse and conduct problems,” Spoth said. “We time the implementation of these interventions so they’re developmentally appropriate. That’s not too early, not too late; about the time when they’re beginning to try out these new risky behaviors that ultimately can get them in trouble.”

PROSPER administers a combination of family-focused and school-based programs. The study involved 28 communities, evenly split between Iowa and Pennsylvania. The programs start with students in the sixth grade. The goal is to teach parents and children the skills they need to build better relationships and limit exposure to substance use.

PROSPER prevention programs dramatically cut substance abuse among teens “Two skills that students learn in the school-based programs are how to be more assertive and how to solve complex situations with their friends,” said Greenberg who is founding director of Penn State’s Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development. “As a result they are more comfortable with refusing to do something that might lead to trouble or doing things that they will later regret.”

Parents say the program works.

“We also support parents to be more aware of how to communicate with their teens, and to be more attuned to what their children are doing, who they’re with, where they’re going so that they can effectively monitor, supervise and communicate with their children,” said Greenberg.

The ongoing community partnerships are evidence of the PROSPER program’s sustainability, according to the researchers. The results extend beyond a reduction in prescription drug or marijuana use. Researchers know that substance abuse often leads to other problem behaviors, so prevention can have a ripple effect and cut down on problems in school and violent behaviors in general. The benefits are measured in economic terms as well as the overall health and outlook of the community.


A’ndrea Elyse Messer

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Penn State

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