Lesson 4: Understanding the Social Risk and Protective Factors in Substance Use and Substance Use Disorders

| 0

The last two lessons examined the etiology of substance use and substance use disorders. In Lesson 2, the biological—specifically neurobiological and genetic—factors were considered, and in Lesson 3, we reviewed psychological theories. In the last lesson in this section, we examine etiological social factors, paying particular attention to the risk and protective factors that can affect the onset of substance use.

The social factors, sometimes called environmental factors, are the characteristics of a person’s surroundings that increase their likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs. Often, social factors are categorized into domains and are described as risk* or protective** factors1. The domains may be described as intrapersonal (race, age, gender), interpersonal (family, friends, peers), or extrapersonal (school, work, community). Risk or protective factors for substance use can develop in any of these domains.

Following the theme that substance use disorders are developmental disorders, we will focus predominantly on the affect these factors have on adolescents and young adults. We will consider the factors associated with mainstream and non-mainstream youth, and focus more specifically on the generational and legacy risk factors for aboriginal youth.


Lesson 4 addresses the following topics:

  • Overview of risk and protective factors
  • Risk and protective factors for youth (mainstream and non-mainstream)
  • Risk and protective factors for Canada’s aboriginal youth

Learning Outcomes

After you complete this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe intrapersonal and interpersonal risk and protective factors relating to the development of substance use and dependence.
  • Differentiate between the vulnerable and less vulnerable youth populations based on risk and protective factors.
  • Assess evidence linking selected social (environmental) and psychological (behavioural) factors with an increased vulnerability for substance use among mainstream youth.
  • Evaluate research that supports the hypothesis that some individuals in higher risk groups (non-mainstream youth) may be self-medicating to cope with untreated traumas, toxic environments, and underlying psychological conditions.
  • Appreciate the affect that Indian Residential Schools have had on Aboriginal people.
  • Justify how the identification of a person’s risk and protective factors can be used to define appropriate (context-specific) preventative interventions for that person.
  • Generate ideas to mitigate stigma/discrimination directed towards non-mainstream youth with substance use disorders and their families.


Alberta Health Services—Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission. (2009). An overview of risk and protective factors for adolescent substance use and gambling behaviour: A review of the literature for The Alberta Youth Experience Survey 2008. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Health Services.

Bickel, W., & Potenza, M. (2006). The forest and the trees: Addiction as a complex self-organizing system. In W. Miller & K. Carroll (Eds.), Rethinking substance abuse: What the science shows, and what we should do about it (pp. 8–21). New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2011). The impact of stressors on second generation Indian residential school survivors. Transcultural Psychiatry, 48(4), 367–391.

Canadian Center on Substance Abuse. (2007). Substance abuse in Canada: Youth in focus. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Center on Substance Abuse.

Collin-Vézina, D., De La Sablonnière, M., Philippe-Labbé, M-P., Giffard, T. & (2010). An exploration of the connection between child sexual abuse and gambling in Aboriginal communities. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8(2), 174–189. (Available through the TRU library).

Holder, H. (2006). Racial and Gender Differences in Substance Abuse: What should communities do about them? In W. Miller & K. Carroll (Eds.), Rethinking substance abuse: What the science shows, and what we should do about it (pp. 153-165). New York: Guildford Press.

McCrady, B. (2006). Family and Other Close Relationships. In W. Miller & K. Carroll (Eds.), Rethinking substance abuse: What the science shows, and what we should do about it (pp.166-181). New York: Guildford Press.

Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT). (2011, March 24). Risk and Protective Factors with Dr. Howard A. Liddle. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MnalNpbQrg.

Rawana, J. S., & Ames, M. E. (2012). Protective predictors of alcohol use trajectories among Canadian Aboriginal youth. Journal Youth Adolescence, 41, 229–243.

Stone, A. L., Becker, L. G., Huber, A. M., & Catalano, R. F. (2012). Review of risk and protective factors of substance use and problem use in emerging adulthood. Addictive Behaviors, 37, 747–775. (Available through TRU library)

Activity Checklist

Following is a checklist of the learning activities you will be completing in Lesson 4. You may find it useful for planning your work.

✔ Activity

☐ Activity 1: Overview of social risk and protective factors

☐ Activity 2: Focus on non-mainstream youth

☐ Activity 3: Generational and legacy risk factors in Canada’s Aboriginal youth

1 *Risk factors increase the risk of an individual experiencing a substance use disorder. **Protective factors decrease the risk of an individual experiencing a substance use disorder