Preventure is a life skills emotional wellness program, specifically designed to identify risky youth traits, resulting in a significant reduction in drug use. Patricia Conrod, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, developed Preventure to recognize how children’s temperament drives their risk for drug use, indicating different pathways to addiction.
Since most teenagers who try alcohol and other drugs do not become addicted, the program focuses on what’s different about the minority who do. Personality testing has found to identify 90 percent of the highest risk children before their risky traits cause problems. According to Ann Moss, president of the Beacon Tree Foundation, “Preventure focuses on emotional wellness overall. Kids are not told it’s a drug program, but a way to funnel their personality traits for success. While the exercises in the manuals touch on drug and alcohol use scenarios, it emphasizes other scenarios teens face as well, such as depression, stress and anxiety.”
According to Ms. Moss, “We cannot control the culture in which kids are growing up. But we can give them the gift of coping skills to deal with a culture where drugs and alcohol are normalized for coping with problems, easy to obtain and potentially lethal. These same traits that show predisposition to alcohol and drug use are also traits found in some of our most talented entrepreneurs, most creative performers and musicians, and our most decorated Olympic and professional athletes.”
Maia Szalavitz, a writer for the N.Y. Times, and a recovered drug addict, recognizes how promising this program is. She writes, “Most at-risk kids can be spotted early. For example, in preschool I was given a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), which is tied to increases in illegal drug addiction risk by a factor of three. My difficulty regulating emotions and oversensitivity attracted bullies.
Then, isolation led to despair. I did well in school but developed a cocaine and heroin addiction out of my sense of hopelessness.” Says Szalavitz, three of the four personality traits identified by Preventure are linked to mental health issues, and are risk factors for addiction: Impulsiveness, Hopelessness, and Anxiety Sensitivity.
Here’s how Preventure works:
Results show Preventure has reduced binge drinking, frequent drug use and alcohol related problems in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found Preventure cut drinking in selected schools by 29 percent— even among those who didn’t attend workshops. Among the high-risk kids who did attend, binge drinking fell by 43 percent. Studies in 2009 and in 2013 also showed that Preventure reduced symptoms of depression, panic attacks and impulsive behavior.
An intensive two-to three-day training is given to teachers and administrators— a course in therapy techniques proven to fight psychological problems. The idea is to recognize outlying personalities before they can become entrenched in disordered thinking that can lead to a diagnosis or to dangerous behavior.
When the school year starts, middle schoolers take a personality test. Months later, two 90-minute workshops— framed as a way to channel students’ personalities toward success—are offered to the whole school, with only a limited number of slots for those who are outside the norm. Overwhelmingly, most students sign up. Although selection appears random, only those with extreme scores on the test—which has been shown to pick up 90 percent of those at risk—actually get to attend. They are given the workshop targeted to their most troublesome trait.
The reason for selection is not initially disclosed. If students ask, they are given honest information; however, most do not ask, and they typically report finding the workshops relevant and useful. There’s no labeling involved, which reduces the chances that kids will turn a label like ‘high risk’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The workshops teach students cognitive behavioral techniques to address specific emotional and behavioral problems.