Prevention practitioners have long targeted risk and protective factors as the “influences” of behavioral health problems. The 2009 report Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities defines risk and protective factors as follows:
Some risk factors are causal: cigarette smoking, for instance, has been closely linked to lung cancer. Others act as proxies (e.g., living in an area with a high prevalence of cigarette smoking) or markers of an underlying problem (e.g., having a smoker’s cough).
Some risk and protective factors, such as gender and ethnicity, are fixed: they don’t change over time. For instance, at a population level being a boy is a risk factor for substance abuse because boys develop substance abuse problems more quickly than girls. Other risk and protective factors are considered variable: these can change over time. Variable risk factors include income level, peer group, and employment status.
Many factors influence an individual’s likelihood to develop a substance abuse or related behavioral health problem. Effective prevention focuses on reducing those risk factors, and strengthening those protective factors, that are most closely related to the problem being addressed.
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Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).