Schools across the United States are recognizing the need to support young people struggling with mental illness and substance misuse. Research shows that substance misuse during adolescence is linked to lower academic performance, increased high school drop-out rates, and higher incidence of substance use disorders later in life. As schools develop whole child approaches to their work, education and health care stakeholders have the opportunity to collaborate, identify new funding streams, and expand school-based substance use prevention and early intervention services. 

The 2015 federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages school districts to address student health and safety and offers multiple funding streams to expand non-academic in-school services. These funding streams include flexible student enrichment grants for improving school climate and student health and wellness. A new tool from Community Catalyst outlines how these resources can be used for substance use prevention services and offers examples of strategies to advance this work.

The federal government is allocating funds to states through ESSA Titles I, II and IV that can be used by school districts to expand evidence-based models for substance use prevention, including youth SBIRT. SBIRT – which stands for Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment – is an evidence-based practice that can help identify the underlying causes of substance use and ensure youth access to the support they need to address them . [Watch our video on SBIRT.] Research shows that screening and brief intervention prevents and delays substance use among youth, which improves their academic performance and reduces the risk that they’ll develop substance use disorders later in life.

Substance use prevention initiatives that offer trauma-informed and supportive responses to student substance use are an important step toward addressing racial inequity in the education system. Zero tolerance policies have disproportionately harmed students of color, who are more likely to be disciplined for substance use than their white peers. As states move forward with ESSA implementation, youth advocates and other stakeholders can  encourage the collection of comprehensive demographic data and the analysis of outcomes by race, income, gender identity, immigration status and other factors known to influence access to and experiences of substance use prevention programming. This data can help identify disparities that need to be addressed.

States are already implementing ESSA plans, and schools can apply for title IV funds prior to each academic year. Learn more about your state’s plan and how you can bring critical supports to students who may otherwise experience barriers to supportive services. Programs like SBIRT have the potential to increase academic achievement, address inequity, and improve health outcomes as youth become adults.