School strategies for preventing drug abuse and suicide

Educators and the community play key roles in steering students away from risky behaviors
By: | August 10, 2018

When we talk about the “deaths of despair”—those from alcohol and drug misuse and suicide—we tend to overlook an important fact. While media reports often focus on adults, young people are also dying from the same causes, and caregivers, family and friends suffer from the trauma of these events.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14 and, as of 2016, more than 1 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 had a substance abuse disorder.

Plus, children who have adverse childhood experiences—stressful, traumatic events such as a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse, or death—are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders as adults.

Children spend about half the year in school, giving educators and other personnel a crucial role in promoting the health and well-being of young people. But, like so many community settings, educators need even more resources and training.

Of the 1 in 5 children who need mental health services, just 20 percent receive them. Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.

The Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust have called for a national strategy to improve resilience—with a focus on children and adolescents.

A recent policy paper ( highlighted four areas to consider as we think about a response to the crises of drugs, alcohol and suicide.


Simply creating a few new programs without integrating them with other supports will not bring about change.

Children are more likely to thrive when all resources are marshaled to build protective factors. For example, school personnel can help identify at-risk students and ensure they are connected to the support and services they need.

One such model, Communities That Care, is a community-based approach that targets problem predictors, rather than waiting for problems to occur.

Communities that implemented CTC had fewer health and behavior problems among their students, and students were more likely to abstain from alcohol and drug use, even after the program ended.

School climate

When students believe adults and peers at school care about them, they are more likely to avoid unhealthy behaviors such as drug and alcohol misuse.

School and district administrators can implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) models that acknowledge and reward healthy behaviors and avoid punitive approaches to negative or unhealthy behaviors.

PBIS provides a framework for schools to organize and deliver evidence-based practices that reduce problem behavior, bullying and substance abuse, and increase graduation rates.


Schools are excellent environments for proactively screening for substance misuse and mental health risk factors.

The Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) method is a public health approach recommended by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

SBIRT is a system of identifying and providing appropriate services to people who clearly need, but are not receiving, treatment.

As with other systems, the most important element is providing care after a need is identified.

PD and additional support

To adequately meet the mental health needs of students, schools need to add staff or develop partnerships with local mental health leaders to increase services provided by school counselors, mental health workers, social workers, psychologists and other healthcare staff.

Professional development (funded under Title II and Title IV of ESSA) can help educators learn best practices to identify and support students at risk for suicide or substance misuse.

John Auerbach (@HealthyAmerica1) is president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. Benjamin F. Miller (@Miller7) is the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust.