Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Step 3. Plan

Prioritizing Risk and Protective Factors

Prioritizing risk and protective factors is a crucial part of the SPF planning process. Different criteria can be used to prioritize risk and protective factors. Communities often use two of these—importance and changeability—to decide which risk or protective factors to address. You will want to select risk or protective factors that are highin both importance and changeability.  


Importance refers to how much a risk or protective factor impacts the substance abuse problem in a community. When examining the data collected, ask yourself how important a particular risk or protective factor is in reducing the problem in the community.  If the answer is “very important,” then this would be considered “high” importance; if it is not important, then it would be considered “low.” For example, if the problem is underage drinking, and the data showed that a lot more youth were obtaining alcohol from stores (referred to as retail access) rather than from their homes or peers (referred to as social access), then retail access would be considered “high” importance, whereas social access would be considered “low.”

When weighing the importance of risk and protective factors, be sure to consider the following information as well:

  • Will the risk or protective factor impact other behavioral health issues? For example, a parent with a substance abuse problem is known to be a risk factor for underage drinking among children as well as for other behavioral health issues. So focusing on this risk factor will impact both youth substance abuse and mental health problems.
  • Does the risk or protective factor directly impact the specific developmental stage of the population group that is experiencing the problem? For example, if the problem is underage drinking among 18- to 20-year-olds, then the risk factor, parental monitoring around drinking behavior, would have less impact for this developmental stage then it would for a population group of 14- to 17-year-olds. So parental monitoring would be considered “low” importance.


Changeability refers to the following:

  • Whether the community has the capacity—readiness and resources—to change a particular risk or protective factor
  • Whether a suitable evidence-based intervention exists
  • Whether change can be brought about in a reasonable time frame—changing some risk or protective factors may take too long to be a practical solution

If the community has ample resources and sufficient readiness to address this risk or protective factor, if a suitable evidence-based intervention exists, and if change can occur within a reasonable timeframe, then it would be considered “high” changeability. If there are not adequate resources or the community is not ready to address the risk or protective factor, then it would be considered “low” changeability.


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