Risk Factors vs. Protective Factors: Treat Substance Abuse Problems Successfully

Why a Person’s Past Doesn’t Always Determine Their Future

While there are traditional risk and protective factors that play a role in determining a person’s susceptibility to certain behavioral, mental health, and substance abuse problems, these factors are not strictly determinate. Some individuals who have a large number of protective factors can still face these problems, just as an individual who has a large number of risk factors can be highly successful in life.

There are standard guidelines health professionals use to diagnose a variety of mental and behavioral disorders, and to treat substance abuse problems. Risk and protective factors range over a variety of domains, such as family, community, school, peer and individual.

What are risk factors?

A risk factor is an element in a person’s life that would influence them in rebelling or developing problems. Risk factors differ depending on the problem at hand, but the general list looks familiar.

Risk factors include:

  • Divorced parents
  • Predisposition to alcoholism or substance abuse
  • Sexual or physical abuse in family history
  • Family moved around a lot
  • Poor socio-economic status
  • Constant instability within the home
  • Unemployed parents
  • Lack of community programs

What are protective factors?

A protective factor is something that would generally “protect” or shield someone against behavioral, mental or substance abuse problems.

Protective factors include:

  • Family dynamic is supportive
  • Parents are still together
  • Engaged in community
  • Immediate people are socially and mentally healthy
  • Participate in school activities

These two kinds of factors are beneficial in the process of diagnosis because treatment can then involve addressing the conditions under which a certain factor applies, and work to remedy that condition. For instance, a person is at risk of exhibiting behavior associated with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) if they are not subject to rules or consequences within the home. Treatment for ODD, would then work on altering the environment by introducing strict ground rules and reasonable consequences. Individualized treatment includes understanding which risk and protective factors apply to a particular person. The goals of treatment vary according to the combination of factors.

Risk and protective factors are not always a reliable indication of a person’s susceptibility to behavioral or substance abuse problems.

Everyone struggles, anyone can have depression, and anyone can become an addict. There needs to be awareness that risk and protective factors are not the sole indicator of a person’s future. Anyone can have an issue, and parents can be blinded by “protection.” Generally, if a person has less protective factors and many risk factors they may be more likely to use drugs, skip school, and engage in destructive behaviors, but risk factors don’t always determine the troubled kids. Someone who has every risk factor against them can succeed despite the odds, and a person who is well protected is still susceptible to mental health and behavioral issues. A child can be involved in the church, play on the basketball team, get good grades, be “better off,” and still suffer from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

Identifying individual risk and protective factors can be useful in a wilderness therapy program.

Recognizing the individual risk and protective factors that apply to a person is helpful in determining the appropriate course of treatment. If a person has developed an issue primarily because of risk factors, a course of treatment would work to address ways to remedy and manage those factors. If a person has come to wilderness therapy despite having a large number of protective factors, then treatment would focus on addressing the other reasons why a person is suffering from a particular issue.

Wilderness therapy programs work to address both the external factors that contribute to a person’s issue, and the internal factors that cannot be addressed by a change in home environment. Individualized treatment is one of the reasons that wilderness therapy is so successful in assisting with behavioral, mental health, and to help and treat substance abuse problems.