Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Epidemiological Data: What Can it Tell You?

Epidemiology helps us understand the nature and extent of substance use, abuse, dependence, associated risk and protective factors in a population. It is invaluable for developing prevention strategies and policies. States and communities are not all the same; neither are their patterns of substance use and abuse. Data about the nature and patterns of substance use and abuse in a particular community can help focus prevention efforts. For example:

  • If data reveal that third-party sales (adults buying alcohol for them) are a primary source of underage alcohol access, then prevention efforts should target adults who engage in this practice.
  • If data reveal that substance use or abuse is lower among teens who participate in extracurricular school and community activities than among teens who don't, then prevention efforts should focus on creating more of these activities and/or getting more teens involved in existing activities.

Quantitative and qualitative data can also provide the information needed to effectively select, target, and deliver prevention efforts. This includes information about the following:

  • Types and extent of substance use and abuse, which can clarify decisions about the types of prevention activities that are needed
  • Demographic data of specific subpopulations, which can aid in the appropriate selection of prevention programs, assist in the anticipation of needs (e.g. translation services), and allow for comparison across subpopulations
  • Risk and protective factors that increase (or decrease) the chances of individuals using or abusing substances, such as an exaggerated perception among middle school students about how much their peers use drugs or alcohol
  • Indicators of substance abuse-related problems, signaling broader human and societal consequences and which may help to prioritize prevention efforts