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Prevention and Behavioral Health

Learn about prevention’s important role in behavioral health and how prevention efforts must align with developmental stages to be effective.

One in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health issue each year, and a 2014 SAMHSA report on behavioral health indicated that 1.25 million people in the U.S. were enrolled in substance use treatment in a single-day count.

Prevention plays a crucial role in addressing mental and/or substance use disorders. These disorders can have an enormous impact on behavioral health, which includes a person’s state of mental or emotional being and the choices and actions he or she makes that affect his or her wellness.

Because many mental and/or substance use disorders are co-occurring, successful prevention efforts in one area can have a positive effect in another. Research has shown that populations affected by mental and/or substance use disorders often overlap. In addition, there are similarities among the factors that contribute to both types of problems. As a result, applying an effective intervention that improves mental health may also reduce substance use, and reducing substance use may improve a person’s mental health.

Mental and physical health is also connected. Good mental health often contributes to good physical health. Likewise, the presence of mental and/or substance use disorders is frequently associated with physical health disorders.

Interventions may target individuals or population groups. Consequently, prevention practitioners must assess risk and protective factors that affect whole populations as well as individuals and select appropriate prevention approaches to address these factors.

Prevention and the Continuum of Care

Prevention is an important component of the continuum of care, which represents a comprehensive approach to behavioral health. Each component of the continuum (promotion, prevention, treatment, and recovery) presents opportunities for addressing behavioral health problems and for collaborating across sectors. In the prevention component of the continuum, practitioners assess relevant risk factors and protective factors prior to implementing their prevention efforts.

Learn more about the Continuum of Care model.

Prevention and Developmental Stages

Chart showing the difference in age between when people with mental illness first show symptoms and the age at which they are first diagnosed.

Download the Windows of Opportunity chart (JPG | 57 KB).

According to a 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine, half of all people with mental and/or substance use disorders are diagnosed by age 14, and three fourths of people with these conditions are diagnosed by age 24.

Intervening during windows of opportunity—the period of time between when the symptoms are first detected and when the disorder is diagnosed—can prevent the disorder from developing. However, the intervention must be appropriate for the target population’s development phase.

People’s developmental needs and competencies change over their lifetimes. A developmental approach to prevention enables prevention practitioners to match their efforts to the developmental needs and competencies of their target population. The prevention approach should be well-matched to that population’s developmental stage and developmental competencies—their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral abilities to adapt to new challenges and experiences.

Not all people develop competencies at the same rate. The risk and protective factors that people experience during each of their developmental stages can influence whether they are able to gain the competencies they need to achieve positive behavioral health. For example, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are major risk factors for numerous mental and/or substance use disorders. More than two decades of research has indicated the need for interventions that reduce and prevent ACEs and for services that support adult survivors of ACEs.

Prevention professionals must consider not only when an intervention should take place but also where it is most likely to be effective. People develop competencies in a range of settings, including the home, school, and places in the community. Each of these settings plays a role in a child’s development. As individuals progress through their youth and into adulthood, some settings may become more significant in shaping their behavioral health. Prevention professionals must be aware of this when selecting prevention interventions.

Publications and Resources

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Last Updated: 11/14/2016