About half of youth report not feeling a genuine sense of belonging at school.
This surprising finding comes from the latest needs assessment conducted with over 600 youth ages 13-18 across the United States as part of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s Getting Candid: Framing the Conversation Around Youth Substance Use Prevention initiative, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Belonging is defined as the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, a sports team or a place of education or worship, humans have an inherent desire to belong and contribute to a collective group greater than themselves.
Belonging also happens to be a well-established protective factor against youth substance use and a central contributor to ones’ overall sense of wellbeing. But it is not just general belonging; youth who feel connected to their schools, specifically, are less likely to engage in many risky behaviors. Feeling a sense of belonging to one’s school buffers against drug use behaviors and norms of students, while feelings of school isolation and disconnectedness appear to contribute to higher rates of drug use and earlier initiation to drugs.
Schools continue to serve as the central institution where youth ages 13-18 spend the majority of their time, and so having a sense of belonging within the school community is no doubt important. It is also possible that the two years of remote learning, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have had a negative effect on youths’ sense of belonging within their schools.
Results from the recent Getting Candid Needs Assessment found that 76% of youth report that mental health is the biggest, or one of the biggest, priorities for them. Substance use prevention messaging and building a sense of belonging in students go hand-in-hand. Prevention conversations are an opportunity for school staff to show students that they care about their students’ mental wellbeing.
What can schools do to increase belonging and prevent substance use?
Working to increase students’ sense of belonging is vital to substance use prevention efforts and our ability to turn the tide on the rising opioid overdose epidemic, effects from the increases in availability of cannabis products and and climbing alcohol-related cirrhosis deaths in young adults. Alcohol and drug use among youth continues to be high, and most students report not having received any substance use prevention programming at their schools in the past 12 months. We need school prevention education to be continuous and constant.
Evidence-based substance use prevention programming is effective at reducing costs across both an individual level and a societal level. Research into the cost-benefits of general substance use prevention programing indicates that every $1 spent on substance use prevention yields over $10 in savings. School-based prevention research found that if effective school-based prevention programs were implemented nationwide, every $1 invested would yield $18 in savings.
Bringing students into shared conversations about substance use prevention can demonstrate care, which lead to feelings of belonging. Schools need to establish themselves as trusted sources for information on the harms of substance use. This can be accomplished by educating school staff on available resources such as the Getting Candid Cannabis Resource Center, best practices in prevention messages or the harms of individual substances. The more education staff has, the more accurately school staff can speak to and confidently deliver prevention messages.
Trust is a crucial component for both fostering belonging and influencing substance use behavior. Before the delivery of prevention education, youth need to feel safe to engage in conversations around substance use. School staff must be committed to building trust and rapport with students by recognizing power differentials, avoid use of stigmatizing language, creating space for youth to have a voice and advocating for policy and environmental changes that support diverse needs for belongingness. Schools can work to build a network of adults who are not only trusted sources for information, but also are trained and positioned to be trusted for sensitive conversations around substance use issues.
Schools can also work to encourage every student to participate in after-school and extracurricular activities. Teams and clubs are a great way to make friends, build school spirit and work toward shared goals. Extracurriculars also provide supervised, structured activity, which insulates against youth substance use.
To create a fully inclusive environment for all students, it is important that school staff review the institutional structures and offering types to ensure that the diversity of options appeal to, and are inclusive of, a diverse student body. Supporting every single student in engaging with the school community, even after the bell rings, should not be underestimated.
A Way Forward
Student belonging aligns with the SAMSHA Strategic Prevention Framework guidance that prevention programs: 1) enhance protective factors, 2) create collaborative systems and 3) use a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use. Enhancing belonging and substance use prevention requires collaboration not only between internal school staff, but with the students they serve, the parents and external community partners. Effective solutions require comprehensive and varied methods that range from increasing the delivery of prevention curriculum, to building trust and rapport with students, to recognizing diverse needs and advocating for system changes that support them.
As we move forward, it is important to remember that developing a sense of belonging takes time; and educators today are understaffed and under-resourced, making efforts around school community and substance use prevention even harder to achieve. Despite the challenges, substance use prevention programming and the creation of school communities where students feel a sense of connection, is worth the investment. Amid the ongoing alcohol, cannabis and opioid epidemics, intention toward these goals is more important now than ever for our youth. Through care and education, we can provide the foundation for students to go on to live healthy and inspiring adult lives.