Early initiation of alcohol use introduces teens to multiple dangers, including immediate consequences like injury, risky sexual behaviors and general risk-taking. Some of the impact is related to later health issues, such as an increased likelihood of developing certain cancers.
Preventing teens from using alcohol often involves targeting high-risk populations through the school system. Interventions performed through the school, however, can be expensive and may not be effective in reducing the initiation of and continued use of alcohol among teens.
However, a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry indicates that mental health interventions, in which students are taught how to recognize the features of their mental health problems and navigate those symptoms, may be effective in reducing alcohol consumption among high-risk teens.
The findings of the study so strongly support the use of such interventions among high-risk teens that the authors are recommending that the strategy be implemented across the country.
The research, known as the “Adventure Trial,” was focused on 21 London schools that received an intervention among high-risk students, or continued to receive the standard drug and alcohol education provided by the government.
The researchers assessed 2,548 students with an average age of 13.8 years and identified them as either high- or low-risk for alcohol dependence. The classification of high-risk was assigned to those who met criteria for certain personality profiles: hopelessness, sensation-seeking, anxiety or impulsivity.
Each of the schools that were designated for the intervention were able to send four staff members for specialized training for delivering group workshops about the four personality types. Eleven schools were also able to send 709 students to a workshop focusing on cognitive-behavioral techniques for dealing with specific personality profiles.
Lead author Dr. Patricia Conrod of the King’s Institute of Psychiatry explained that the workshops helped the students to understand their personality traits, the tendencies that go with those traits, and ways to make responsible decisions with those traits in mind.
“Not only does the intervention have a significant effect on the teenagers most at risk of developing problematic drinking behavior, there was also a significant positive effect on those who did not receive the intervention, but who attended schools where interventions were delivered to high-risk students,” Conrod said. “This ‘herd effect’ is very important from a public health perspective as it suggests that the benefits of mental health interventions on drinking behaviour also extend to the general population, possibly by reducing the number of drinking occasions young people are exposed to in early adolescence.”
The researchers witnessed the effectiveness of the cognitive-behavioral techniques in helping students to navigate situations of high anxiety, tendencies to respond to situations with pessimism and learning to control impulsivity.
The study’s results show that developing strategies among teens for handling mental health issues may be significantly more effective than providing information on the dangers of consuming alcohol.
Two years into the intervention, high-risk students in schools selected to receive intervention had a 29 percent reduction in risk of drinking, a 43 percent reduction in the risk of binge drinking and a 29 percent reduction in the risk of problem drinking when compared with high-risk students attending control schools.
The intervention was also shown to be effective in delaying the progression from initiation of alcohol use to more risky alcohol consumption, such as binge drinking, among high-risk students.