Supporting a young person to reduce the harms related to their drug and alcohol use requires an understanding of the factors that influence use.

There are many factors which influence a young person’s decision to use alcohol and other drugs and these factors vary considerably among different groups of young people. Common to all drug use is a ‘positive’ function. The function might be to provide pleasure (to enhance social activity or provide an enjoyable physical response). Or it might be to offer relief from physical pain or, commonly, mental health concerns such as emotional pain, anxiety or low mood. There is often a strong link between mental health concerns and use of drugs. For many, the positive function of drug use is a combination of pleasure and relief.

Young people might begin drug use as part of adolescent experimentation. Or perhaps they’re introduced to alcohol and other drugs in a family context where drug use is normal. Living in environments where drug use is an accepted part of everyday life significantly increases the likelihood of a young person developing a problem with drugs. Youth workers call such environments a ‘risk factor’. Other risk factors include experiences of abuse or neglect, absence of family supports, homelessness, family violence and school exclusion.


There is no single cause or prevention of problematic substance use

In addition to risk factors there are ‘protective factors’. These increase a young person’s likelihood of avoiding problematic substance use. Protective factors include strong and supportive relationships with caregivers, positive peer networks, meaningful engagement with school or work, and safe and secure housing.

There is no single cause or prevention of problematic substance use; however, when risk factors outnumber protective factors, an individual is not only more vulnerable to developing a problem, but is also less likely to be able to get back on track given the absence of supports and protection. For a more detailed look at this and similar topics, check out “risk and protective factors” and “Factors influencing drug using behaviour” in the youth AOD Toolbox.