Tag: prevention policies

The Future of Prevention: Part One

February 2nd, 2010

Let’s pretend you have a serious weed problem in your yard. Possible solutions include:

1. Applying weed killer

2. Enhancing the soil and planting more grass

Carrying this analogy to the realm of prevention programs and policies, my observation is that most efforts have concentrated on “killing the weeds” by setting up funding streams that target specific risk behaviors among youth. Risk behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, sex, and suicide, all have their own funding streams. The idea behind these streams is to create programs that focus on reducing the prevalence of a particular behavior. Having worked in prevention for some time now, I’ve developed two main concerns with this approach:

1) “Prevention” as a term doesn’t seem helpful. There are times we certainly want to prevent things. I prevent my two-year-old from running into the road, for example. I’ve counseled youth and tried to prevent them from taking their own life. But prevention should describe only a portion of my efforts. Instead of trying to keep youth from doing certain things, we should inspire youth toward something better. When I think of the term “prevention” I picture standing in a doorway. Above the door is a plaque with the name of the behavior I’m trying to prevent. I don’t need to say a thing. My position says it all: Don’t go into this room. But what do we know about human nature, especially youth? They are intrigued most by what we forbid. By trying to block the behavior we may be drawing attention to it. I believe that if we can inspire youth toward something better, we have hope of succeeding in guiding them away from poor choices.

2) Risk behaviors travel in clusters. Anyone in the field of prevention will agree. Teens who smoke pot are more likely to drink alcohol, have sex, and so on. But our government addresses each of these behaviors not as facets of a whole, but as separate isolated behaviors. There are excellent programs that have long known this and attempt to address the interconnected nature of the behaviors. But this should be the norm, not the exception. Federal resources that fund such programs would do well to allocate their funding in ways that mirror the reality in which these risk behaviors occur.

There are groups and some funding that address the relational and environmental landscape–the soil–in which youth grow, some of which is downright uninhabitable. I hope this holistic approach will become the standard, for it’s at the level of the soil that we infuse youth with the nutrients to grow. Rather than restricting our view of youth to a single, undesirable behavior, we should target deeper elements that give rise to behavior, healthy and unhealthy.

Another tragic side-effect of these splintered funding streams is that the process encourages cronyism and adverse competition. Each prevention field has within it strong, vocal camps that fiercely defend their territory. They believe they are right, others are wrong. They believe they deserve the money more than others. They really believe this. In some cases, they are right. There are many organizations whose efforts deserve recognition and accolades. These groups should inspire others to serve youth in profound ways. But what happens all too often is that organizations within a field square off against each other and against other fields–forgetting that we are here to serve youth, not ourselves.

Prevention groups can encourage work that changes the lives of youth, no matter what funding source paid for it. We can work to develop and refine programs that appreciate the complexity of risk behaviors. Programs can address not merely behaviors, but the deeper causes of behaviors–like one’s sense of self-efficacy, worth, and personal beliefs and values. The behaviors are most conspicuous, but we should not identify them as the primary problem.