Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Four Key Features of Risk and Protective Factors

The 2009 report Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities presents four key features of risk and protective factors for practitioners to consider when designing and evaluating prevention interventions:

1. Risk and Protective Factors Exist in Multiple Contexts

Individuals come to the table with biological and psychological characteristics that make them vulnerable to, or resilient in the face of, potential behavioral health problems. Individual-level risk factors include genetic predisposition to addiction or exposure to alcohol prenatally; protective factors might include positive self-image, self-control, or social competence.

Risk and Protective Factors Exist In Multiple Contexts

But individuals don’t exist in isolation. They are engaged in relationships that influence their behaviors. They are members of communities. And they are part of society. A variety of risk and protective factors operate within each of these contexts, or levels, and these factors influence one another. For example:

  • In relationships, risk factors include parents who use drugs and alcohol or who suffer from mental illness, child abuse and maltreatment, and inadequate supervision; a protective factor would be parental involvement
  • In communities, risk factors include neighborhood poverty and violence; protective factors might include the availability of faith-based resources and after-school activities
  • In society, risk factors can include norms and laws favorable to substance use, as well as racism and a lack of economic opportunity; protective factors include policies limiting availability of substances or anti-hate laws defending marginalized populations, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youth

Practitioners must look across these contexts to address the constellation of factors that influence both individuals and populations: targeting just one context is unlikely to do the trick. For example, a strong school policy forbidding alcohol use on school grounds will likely have little impact on underage drinking in a community where parents accept underage drinking as a rite of passage or where alcohol vendors are willing to sell to young adults. A more effective—and comprehensive—approach might include school policy plus education for parents on the dangers of underage drinking, or a city ordinance that requires alcohol sellers to participate in responsible server training.


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


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