School Counselor’s Role with Students at Risk for Substance Abuse

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School counselors play a major role in helping ensure that students stay on the right track. Many students depend on their counselors to provide positive direction. One of the major problems for students is substance abuse. It is vital that counselors are able to identify possible substance abuse. In 2013, it was reported that over 5.2 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 17 had an alcohol or illicit drug dependence with 78,156 American youths under the age of 18 receiving substance abuse treatment. This fact is a big challenge for school counselors in helping to keep students out of harm’s way. To learn more, take a look at the infographic below created by Bradley University’s Online Masters in Counseling Program.

Infographics on School Counselors Role in Helping Ensure That Students Stay on the Right Track and Don't Abuse Substances

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The Numbers Tell the Story

The reports of usage among individuals under the age of 18 are clear. In 2013, a study revealed that there were approximately 7,800 new drug users per day equating to 54.1 percent of all youth and 12,500 new alcohol users per day equating to 59.1 percent of today’s youth.

Among the most commonly used substances is alcohol. Approximately 26.8 percent of 8th graders, 40.3 percent of 10th graders and 66 percent of 12th graders use it. Marijuana ranks second in usage with 15.6 percent of users being 8th graders, 33.7 percent being 10th graders and 44.4 percent being 12th graders. Inhalants also are among the top four substances with 10.8 percent of users being 8th graders, 8.7 percent being 10th graders and 6.8 percent being 12th graders. Last on the list are amphetamines with 6.7 percent of users being in 8th grade, 10.6 percent in 10th grade and 12.1 percent in 12th grade.

Warning Signs

Understanding the warning signs is an important part of helping students as a school counselor. There are several signs that can give a counselor a heads-up relating to a student’s substance use. If a counselor detects a change in an individual’s peer groups, he or she could be abusing substances. A sudden or even gradual inattentiveness to grooming habits is also a warning sign that something might be going on. Academically, a counselor can detect issues relating to drug or alcohol use if there is a drop in grades, overall performance and participation in academics. Taking note of unusual or excessive absences without proper explanations can indicate that the student is becoming involved in substance abuse of some type.

Students who have suddenly lost all interest in some of their once-favorite activities or people could be signs that they are becoming involved in the use of alcohol or drugs. More subtle changes, such as a change in eating habits and sleeping habits, can also indicate issues relating to drugs and alcohol. More dramatic changes, such as getting in trouble with school officials or legal trouble, can also be indicators of problems. With any combination of these changes, substance abuse should seriously be considered.

Preventative Strategies

As a school counselor, you can pinpoint these changes and act on them accordingly. There are several prevention strategies that can be used to help minimize the problem. One strategy is to create a schoolwide substance abuse and prevention policy or update the existing policy. This might include a tobacco-, drug- and alcohol-free campus requirement with consequences that are clear and firm for violations by students, as well as a random locker inspection component for enforcement.

Community Involvement

Getting the community involved can also be beneficial. Tactics might include working with mental health providers to develop strategies for approaching and communicating with local law enforcement and the justice agencies to ensure you are on the same page with regard to the laws. Youth agencies such as the YMCA, community and art centers and local camps for youth also may be able to provide assistance. Don’t forget the parent groups, such as the PTA, that could be beneficial in the fight, as well.


One of the most important parts of preventative strategies is communications. Make sure to communicate messages of prevention effectively and often with home messages, community messages and social media assistance. Intervention and treatment should be implemented early. Training of teachers and staff in identifying warning signs and symptoms can be invaluable. Interventions can be necessary in some cases. Maintaining current local treatment agency referrals for students that need them is also useful.

Change Their View

Fewer students believe that taking drugs are risks given their attitudes about them in the last few years. Studies showed that, in 2013, students considered marijuana a risk 39.5 percent of the time versus 55 percent in 2005. Heroin was considered risky by 79.8 percent of students in 2013 but 81.8 percent in 2005, and cocaine 78.4 percent in 2013 versus 79.9 percent in 2005. This change may be because there are fewer substance abuse prevention messages and programs being mainstreamed to students. In 2005, approximately 77.9 percent of the students asked said they had seen messages about the risks of substance abuse while in 2013 only 73.5 percent said the same.

Accessibility to the Elements

Drugs are fairly accessible to students of recent years; however, some are more accessible than others. Studies showed that marijuana is the easiest drug to obtain according to 48.6 percent of students weighing in. Another 14.4 percent of students believe that cocaine is the second easiest to obtain. LSD is third according to 11.3 percent of the students, and heroin is last with 9.1 percent of students saying it is easy to obtain. Additionally, male youths are more likely than female youths to have used drugs and alcohol and be frequent users.

In 2014 studies, 66 percent of the students questioned said that they had tried alcohol once, 49.1 percent used illicit drugs once, 44.4 percent had used marijuana and inhalants once and 6.5 percent had tried amphetamines. With these numbers, it is vital that school counselors make themselves an important part of the efforts to help students at risk for substance abuse. There have been some impressive success stories for counselors who have made changes. The Escanaba, Mich., School District made a dramatic decrease in 7th grade monthly drinking averages — from 17 percent to 7 percent over seven years. Through incorporated substance abuse and prevention policies, effective student messaging campaigns and parent involvement in prevention policies and activities, the district was able to make a change.


Recommended Readings

How Professional Counselors Can Help Address The Opioid Crisis

Substance Abuse Counseling: What You Can Learn in a MAC Program

Bradley University Online Master’s in Counseling