Protective Factors of Resilience: A Substance Abuse Prevention Strategy

October 19, 2018

Among the range of interventions needed to address the opioid and drug abuse crisis, community-based strategies and two-generational, whole-family preventions which build protective factors of resilience are worth investment.

Protective factors, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), are characteristics that reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes. For example, protective factors such as strong parent-child bonds and reduced family conflict have been shown to protect against drug abuse later in life (McDonald & Doostgharin, 2013).

The FAST® Program intentionally aims to strengthen protective factors encompassing the child’s interpersonal bonds, the family system, parent-to-parent support, parent peer social network, parent empowerment, and school/community affiliation. A focus on caring, loving relationships and the cultivation of social connections and supports at the local community, school, and family levels (social capital) help to increase resilience against addiction and substance abuse, as well as other negative outcomes.

Neuroscience research also offers insight to help prevent addiction and substance abuse. By building protective factors, FAST strives to decrease adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are stressful or traumatic events. When children are chronically exposed to ACEs or toxic stress, their neurodevelopment can be affected, which may diminish their cognitive ability to cope with stress and negative emotions, therefore leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drug use. By prioritizing early intervention and prevention, FAST‘s goal is to reduce family stress and, consequently, substance abuse within the family.

Dr. Lynn McDonald, FAST Founder, demonstrates the concept of protective factors at a 2013 Training Conference in Madison, WI.

FAST’s protective factors approach is supported by research from SAMHSA, which identifies a comprehensive list of factors connected to the prevention of substance abuse within the scopes of parent/child connection, involvement with other adults, peer interaction, social connectivity, community stress, and school. Specifically in this report, protective factors of family communication, positive family relationships, family support, non-parental adult role models, school, and sense of belonging in school were found to be connected to positive outcomes based on drug abuse research.

FAST aims to build these protective factors through a structured agenda of positive bonding activities over eight weeks. The culturally representative, community-based, trained FAST team hosts whole families for crafts, playing, talking in the family about feelings, sharing child-rearing successes and challenges in parent groups, and sharing a meal together as a family without drugs, alcohol, or TV. By promoting activities like regularly eating a family meal, FAST helps to reduce drug and alcohol abuse as children age.

Through FAST, families additionally can gain knowledge and awareness of substance abuse and its impact on child development. Referrals to professionals for drug treatment, as well as for depression and/or anxiety, are also facilitated as part of the program. A study by McDonald and Savyger (1998) found that 95 percent of 191 FAST families in a follow-up survey reported increased knowledge about substance abuse after attending FAST, and eight percent of families reported they had pursued treatment because of the program (p. 81).

FAST has been implemented in 48 states and 20 countries around the world. In 2010, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), after reviewing 150 programs, published a guide that endorsed FAST among a select list of 23 evidence-based family skills programs, which served as a supplement to a previous publication on drug abuse prevention. FAST has additionally been recognized by the UNODC as part of a global project targeting drug use, HIV/AIDS, and crime among young people. The program was implemented in Central Asia and Iran in 2014 as part of this project. Canada also recognized FAST as an Exemplary Program for preventing substance use among young people in 2011.

By increasing resilience through the building of protective factors, the FAST Program’s worldwide recognition as an effective multi-systemic, social ecological intervention demonstrates it to be a cost-effective, collaborative, and powerful prevention strategy for opioid and drug use. Simply put, FAST takes a holistic approach to supporting children and their families, while systematically strengthening schools and communities.

Written in partnership with Dr. Lynn McDonald, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Middlesex University, London, England; Emeritus Researcher, School of Education, WCER, UW-Madison; and Founder of the FAST® Program.