Study Identifies Substance Abuse Risk and Protective Factors

Grandparent, parent with long hair and white blouse, and young child sit together laughing in park at picnicAccording to a study published recently in Frontiers in Public Health, substance abuse rates are low, even among black adults and adults of Latin-American or Hispanic descent who have multiple risk factors and live in urban environments. The study identified several risk factors for substance abuse in this group, as well as protective factors that can lower the risk of substance abuse.

A 2011 JAMA Psychiatry study found that, among adolescents, drug use is highest among white and indigenous Americans. The study found just 5% of black adolescents have a substance abuse issue, compared to 7.7% of Hispanic teens, 9% of white teens, and 15% of indigenous youth.

The fact that black teens are arrested for drug crimes at ten times the rate of white teens may help create the misperception that drug use is more common among black youth.

Substance Abuse Risk and Protective Factors

The study gathered data on 2,853 adults who were black or of Latin-American descent and lived in a high poverty area. About a third (36%) met diagnostic criteria for a substance abuse diagnosis. Researchers then identified factors linked to substance abuse, as well as those correlated with a lower risk of substance abuse.

Homelessness, poverty, low health literacy, symptoms of depression, low support from loved ones, and incarceration were significant risk factors for substance abuse. Protective factors included emotional support, instrumental support (such as transportation or provision of childcare), higher levels of education, greater health literacy, and employment. People who had more protective factors were less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, even when they had some risk factors.

Overall, 27% of women and 38% of men fell into low-risk groups based on the presence of protective factors.

Understanding Risk

The study did not look at childhood trauma, intimate partner violence, family strength, violent victimization, or engagement with the community as risk factors for substance abuse. Previous research has found a correlation between these experiences and substance use. So the study’s authors caution their data might not provide a complete picture.

The study was correlative in nature. This means researchers did not prove the risk factors they identified cause substance use. They emphasize it is unclear which comes first, and it may be that substance abuse increases the prevalence of other factors, such as homelessness and incarceration.

Rather than treating risk factors as single issues, the study argues in favor of using Syndemics Theory. This theory holds that two or more risk factors cluster together and act on one another, creating profiles of risk. Providers can comprehensively treat addiction only by treating all factors as a whole and addressing the ways these risk factors interact.


  1. Cleland, C. M., Lanza, S. T., Vasilenko, S. A., & Gwadz, M. (2017). Syndemic risk classes and substance use problems among adults in high-risk urban areas: A latent class analysis. Frontiers in Public Health, 5. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2017.00237
  2. Study reveals risk factors for substance use problems, as well as resilience. (2017, October 16). Retrieved from
  3. Szalavitz, M. (2011, November 07). Study: Whites more likely to abuse drugs than blacks. Retrieved from
  4. Wu, L., Woody, G. E., & Yang, C. (2011). Racial/ethnic variations in substance-related disorders among adolescents in the United States. Archives of General Psychiatry,68(11), 1176. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.120

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  • Douglas

    October 25th, 2017 at 12:25 PM

    I definitely understand the benefits of a study like this, but it also worries me that this could get someone pegged as a potential addict even if they are not at all predisposed to wanting to exhibit this kind of behavior. I know that it is better to catch things early rather than later, but I wouldn’t want someone to be shoehorned into a role that was never really intended for them anyway.

  • Mick

    October 26th, 2017 at 9:39 AM

    Getting into the schools and getting closer to the students at an earlier age is the key to preventing future abuse. When they have adults who they know care about them and that they can depend on when something bad comes up, this is the support that is often lacking in their lives which would then lead them to turn to drugs. If you have someone there who can somehow serve as a buffer for them, then this is only going to benefit the entire community.

  • jeffrey

    October 31st, 2017 at 6:59 AM

    seems a little suspicious that those with a lower percentage of drug use actually have a higher arrest rate

  • Mia

    November 27th, 2018 at 1:50 PM

    Probably due to ‘internal bias’ or racism..

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