Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Connecting to Culture Helps Young People Resist Substance Use

Date Published:Jul 31, 2012

Across the nation, a growing number of prevention programs are connecting young people to the cultural values and traditions of their communities. Cultural pride and strong ties to cultural practices can help to protect young people from engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as substance use.

Over the past four years, several of these programs have participated in SAMHSA’s Service to Science, a national initiative dedicated to enhancing the evaluation capacity of innovative, local programs and practices that address critical substance abuse prevention or behavioral health needs. During September’s National Prevention Network conference in Pittsburgh, PA, representatives from Service to Science will present a workshop that showcases four of these programs:

  • Sankofa (New Jersey), which means “looking back to the wisdom of our ancestors” in the Akan language of Ghana, uses a variety of strategies, including proverbs and fables that reflect traditional African cultural values, to help African American youth better understand and cope with prejudice, racism, rage, and hopelessness.
  • Discovering Our Story (Oregon) connects Native American youth to the video-recorded stories and teachings of tribal storytellers and respected tribal elders. In learning about historical trauma and hearing examples of resilience, Native youth develop strategies for addressing a variety of behavioral health issues.
  • Honor Your Culture-Protect Your Peace/Honra Tu Cultura-Protege Tu Paz (Texas) promotes traditional Hispanic values, such as family bonds and cultural traditions, to help youth living in impoverished communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border address violence.
  • TRUST (New York), a weekly group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their allies. It provides a safe, non-judgmental space where youth can discuss issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, receive support, and create community.

The goal of this panel is to present these programs’ efforts to prevent substance abuse prevention through culturally-informed interventions, as well as their experiences evaluating these interventions with the help of Service to Science.

Each of these programs promotes positive group identification and self-image in young people as a way to counter negative stereotypes and influences. Honor Your Culture-Protect Your Peace, for example, helps youth develop “reverence for family bonds and pride in their community, and begin to value simple things such as a neighborly attitude,” explains Terry Tutchings, an evaluator for the program.  

Sankofa teaches young people to think critically about violent stereotypes in the media. “We reinforce traditional cultural values and offer a toolkit of strategies that can help young people make better choices and align their actions more with an image of themselves that they define, rather than the negative image defined by society,” explains Executive Director Paulette Moore Hines. Sankofa aims to increase youth awareness of their African ancestry by including culturally significant rituals and using symbolic objects to teach respect for self, family, and community, she says.

For Native American youth, the video recordings of their elders provide a link to their cultural past and to the strength and tenacity of people like themselves. According to Rose High Bear, executive director of Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. and producer of Discovering Our Story, “The stories are meaningful to young people, who often feel stronger cultural identity and greater hope when they learn about, and have opportunities to work with, exemplary Native leaders.” To date, the program has recorded 36 tribal elders and storytellers. This fall, Native youth from Portland will learn video field production, editing technology, and television studio production. “We will invite them to join our team,” says High Bear. “They will be helping to make these powerful stories available to more Native Americans.”

Building confidence in young people’s abilities, and helping them develop a better self-image, is also a vital component of TRUST. “LGBTQ youth experience anti-gay slurs, putdowns, and even violence every day. At TRUST, we try to create a place of non-judgment, so that [young people] have a safe place to meet and talk with other youth in the same circumstances,” says J.R. Cehonski, youth pride coordinator for the Community Awareness Network for a Drug-Free Life and Environment. “The LGBTQ community isn’t traditionally viewed as a cultural community, but LGBTQ people do have a shared history of struggles and accomplishments – from the riots at Stonewall to the recognition of marriage equality in some states. TRUST helps young people, who are often rejected by family or other communities, connect to an ‘intentional community,’ or chosen family.”

All four programs “see the solution to problems of substance use and violence as embedded in their particular culture,” Shai Fuxman, associate chief of Service to Science, explains. “These cultural characteristics may include valuing such things as close family ties, community cohesiveness, and the wisdom of elders.”

“Culturally based programs are particularly important for Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and LGBTQ individuals, which suffer disproportionately from substance abuse and related behavioral health problems, and for whom few evidence-based interventions have been developed,” says Fuxman.

During the workshop, program representatives will describe how their communities’ specific cultures inform their prevention efforts and how Service to Science helped them apply more rigorous evaluation methods to their work.

Fuxman hopes that the workshop will not only highlight the role of culture in prevention, but also encourage similar culturally informed programs to apply to their states for nomination into the Service to Science Initiative. Fuxman adds, “There are many innovative, culturally based interventions that address prevention needs in communities like these. We want to play a role in helping them document their effectiveness so we can increase the number of evidence-based interventions available to communities across the country.”


Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).