The Role of Nurses in Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery

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by Shereda Finch, M.Ed. MPA

Preventing substance use disorders (SUDs) and associated problems in children, adolescents and young adults should include comprehensive, integrative approaches that involve parents, families, communities and medical professionals, even nurses. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that in 2016, 28.6 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug during the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans overall (10.6%). For adults ages 18-25, that range was about 1 in 4. Despite the age variance, illicit drug use estimated for that year was driven primarily by marijuana use and the misuse of prescription pain relievers. Survey results indicated that among 24.0 million were marijuana users and 3.3. million misused prescriptions pain relievers.

In the 2015 Alabama Health Barometer Report, produced by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 30,000 adolescents, aged 12-17 (7.7%) reported illicit drug use within the month prior to being surveyed between 2013- 2014. This percentage was mostly the same during the 2010—2011 time period.

Risk and Protective Factors for SUDS

There are various risk and protective factors that can influence an individual’s chance of developing a substance use disorder. Risk factors are defined as characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes. Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes or that reduce a risk factor’s impact.

Everyone has biological and psychological characteristics that either make them susceptible or resilient to potential behavioral health issues. Most often, risk factors are established during childhood and early adolescence. It should not be assumed that adolescents with one or even many risk factors will use ultimately use alcohol and drugs and/or experience a substance use disorder.

Comprehensive Approaches

Preventing the onset of substance use disorders requires comprehensive approaches and the under-standing of an overall continuum of care system. The Behavior Health Continuum of Care Model recognizes multiple opportunities for addressing behavioral health problems and disorders. First introduced in a 1994 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, the model includes the following components:

  • Promotion—These strategies are designed to create environments and conditions that support behavioral health and the ability of individuals to be resilient. Promotion strategies also reinforce the entire continuum of behavioral health services.
  • Prevention—Delivered prior to the onset of a disorder, these interventions are intended to prevent or reduce the risk of developing a behavioral health problem, such as underage alcohol use, prescription drug misuse and abuse, and illicit drug use.
  • Treatment—These services are for people diagnosed with a substance use or other behavioral health disorder.
  • Recovery—These services support individuals’ integrating back into the community, live productive lives and often help with abstinence.

Role of Nurses

Nurses have always played an essential role as outlined under the IOM model. From promotion to recovery, nurses can be found on the front line providing information and resources to a patient; implementing education programs in the community; working on teams in treatment and recovery programs; and encountering individuals as they recover in their communities.

Because of the important role they play in implementing various programs and services, nurses should continuously attempt to stay up-to-date in the area of alcohol and substance abuse and related issues. For more information on substance abuse disorders, including free materials and training, visit SAMHSA’S website at

Shereda Finch, M.Ed., MPA is the executive director at the Council on Substance Abuse-NCADD in Montgomery, Alabama. She is also an adjunct professor in the Rehabilitation Studies Department at Alabama State University.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS

Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from

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