Linda Langford headshot
Dr. Linda Langford

Substance misuse and violence are both key concerns in campus communities. But what about the overlap of these issues? The Drug Enforcement Administration recently engaged Prevention Solutions at Education Development Center to create a planning guide to preventing drug misuse among college students. This forthcoming guide lays out a strategic and systematic approach to substance misuse prevention that also can serve as a roadmap for addressing the overlap of drug and alcohol abuse with violence.

Take a Strategic and Data-driven Approach

Decades of research find that campus prevention programs are most effective when they have clear and focused aims, are comprehensive, and tailored to the community and social context of the campus. Strategic planning does not have to be a cumbersome, years-long process. However, taking some time to examine local data and define the problems that need solving allows campuses to focus their efforts and use resources wisely.
The guide recommends campus teams to follow a step-by-step process to answer these questions:

  • Assess: What is the problem?

  • Build capacity: What do I have to work with?

  • Plan: What should I do and how should I do it?

  • Implement: How can I put my plan into action?

  • Evaluate: Is my plan succeeding?


Look for the Overlaps

During the “Assess” step, examine your data to understand how substance misuse and violence overlap in your campus community. There are many types of violence, including sexual violence, intimate partner violence, hate crimes, hazing, vandalism, assault, and “celebratory” riots. What types of violence are occurring and how do they overlap with specific types of substance misuse? For example, how large is the problem of drug- and alcohol-facilitated sexual assaults? Is there an uptick in assaults or vandalism on game days with widespread tailgating? Do you see patterns of crime or violence related to buying, manufacturing, or selling drugs?


Describe the Problems in Detail

For each type of substance-involved violence, describe when, where, and under what circumstances they are occurring, as well as who was involved and who was affected. This descriptive information will be invaluable in shaping your prevention efforts.
When examining interpersonal violence, it is critical to pay attention to perpetration as well as victimization. We want to reduce victimization, of course, but we will not reduce violence overall unless we focus on perpetration. That means making sure we review available data to understand who is perpetrating violence, the contexts and settings in which they are doing so, and what types of substance misuse are associated with those offenses.


Examine How Substance Misuse Contributes to Violence

It is key not to oversimplify the relationship between substance misuse and violence. Substance use is one contributor in a complex interplay of factors, including individual characteristics, group-level factors, attributes of campus and community environments, and broader cultural and societal factors. For example, physiological effects such as impaired cognitive functioning may interact with pre-existing factors like attitudes supportive of violence, peers who encourage violence or do not intervene, settings that create an environment conducive to aggressive behavior, and cultural factors such as norms regarding gender roles. Examining the interplay of these factors in your campus community will help identify and shape program components.
In examining contributing factors, continue to focus on perpetration and avoid victim-blaming. Asking “Why were people violent?” is more helpful than asking “Why were people victimized?” In particular, focusing on survivors’ use of drugs or alcohol as the cause of violence is harmful to survivors and ignores the root causes.


Implement Comprehensive Interventions that Address the Complexity of Drug-related Violence

Multiple approaches are needed to address the overlap of substance misuse and violence. Successful efforts may combine policies, law and policy enforcement, reducing the availability of drugs and alcohol, addressing setting-specific problems, teaching skills, and correcting misperceptions that exist about the commonality or acceptability of substance-involved violence.
Comprehensive environmental efforts to reduce substance misuse also may help to reduce violence. For example, one community-based project that addressed alcohol access, alcohol sales, enforcement, and other factors reduced assaults as well as high-risk alcohol use and driving after drinking. However, drug and alcohol misuse prevention efforts should complement rather than replace dedicated violence prevention efforts.


Partnership is Key

Campus professionals who work on substance misuse prevention and violence prevention will have greater success if they work together to review the data, highlight the extent and nature of the links between these problems, and then work to ensure that campus and community programs, policies, and services address these complex dynamics. Ultimately, coming together around shared goals greatly increases the likelihood of making the long-term culture changes that are needed to reduce both violence and substance misuse on our campuses.


Linda Langford, Sc.D., has worked with colleges and universities on violence prevention and other health and safety issues for over 20 years. For 14 years, she directed violence prevention initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention. She has operated her own Boston-based consulting business since 2012, when the Center ceased operation.

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