Connections Spotlight: Understanding How Positive Community Factors Can Prevent Substance Abuse in Youth

Mar 26, 2020 | CCC&Y Info & Events

Editor’s note: Breaking news! The Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth has just announced that its April conference has been rescheduled to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 at the High Country Conference Center, Flagstaff. More details to come.

By Virginia Watahomigie, M.ADM • Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth

The Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth (CCC&Y) strives to prevent substance abuse and other negative outcomes in adulthood by understanding the effects of childhood traumatic experience and mobilizing community action. Research shows that Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, contribute to the likelihood of addiction. Sadly, however, Arizona ranks higher than the national average for children who have experienced ACEs. These can include childhood traumas such as abuse and neglect. In fact, according to the Arizona ACE Consortium, “It is estimated that nearly 70,000 children in Arizona have more than five ACEs.”

As ACE exposure goes up, the risk for negative outcomes such as substance abuse also goes up. For example, the rate of alcohol abuse jumps from a one in 69 chance to a one in six chance for individuals who have experienced seven or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. The rate of intravenous (IV) drug use is even more startling, going from a one in 480 chance to one in 30.

Thus, the effects of these ACEs sometimes play out in our justice system, in our hospitals and in our homeless shelters. The costs of childhood trauma, both to the individual and to society, are high.

Fortunately, there is so much that can be done. Why is it that two people who have had similar difficult experiences in childhood have different outcomes in adulthood? At CCC&Y, we’ve found that an individual’s resiliency to overcome hardship is developed through years of positive experiences and ongoing exposure to protective factors such as caring adults, a positive connection to school and the opportunity to develop a personal sense of worth.

The Search Institute has identified 40 Assets. These assets, many of which are external to the child, include factors that demonstrate support and create empowerment. For example, a caring neighborhood, a positive influence involving adults besides parents, and a sense of safety can all build resilience. Research has shown that the higher number of assets in a child’s life, the lower the risk for negative outcomes. The Search Institute states that when youth have 31-40 assets, they only engage in an average of 0.7 risky behaviors, compared to 7.7 risky behaviors when there are only 0-10 Assets.

You may have seen artistic mountain lion statues around Flagstaff. A close look can remind us of the “assets” that we as a community can continue to develop, such as valuing and encouraging our young people.

The CCC&Y has collected research around the effects of trauma and has learned what circumstances are most likely to lead to resiliency, rather than to harmful behaviors that can cause addiction. We also have sought to understand and acknowledge the effects of historical injustices that have led to generational traumas and continue to show up as inequitable experiences for children. The historic forced removal of Native American children from their homes into boarding schools is but one example of mass trauma across a large group. Besides losing their families and culture, which is tremendously traumatic, many of these children, we now know, suffered severe physical, emotional and sexual abuse in these institutions. For many, the effects of this are still felt today. Current examples of inequity can show up in various ways. For instance, the research is clear that children of color often do not have the same experiences in school as their white peers. They may be punished or even expelled for similar behaviors because of an adult perception ascribing different meaning and intent to students’ behavior.

We also strive to understand why the percentage of emergency room visits related to alcohol abuse is higher here than in any other county in the state. Out of 10,000 people, the rate is 58.6% in Coconino County with an average state rate of 15.6%. Further, Coconino County’s death rate from alcohol is nearly three times greater than the rest of Arizona and more than five times greater than the national average.

Unfortunately, as a society, we often look at these numbers and seek to blame the individual. It is not uncommon to wonder, “If I can turn out okay, why can’t you?” However, missing from this assessment is the understanding that substance abuse rarely happens without traumatic childhood experiences. It is also often related to social isolation and does not account for the fact that we all experience different access to protective factors throughout our childhood and adolescence that can help protect us, even at the neurological and bio-chemical level, from the effects of adverse experiences. A high incidence of protective factors, or assets, can act as a buffer and even a game changer on the trajectory of substance abuse and other negative life outcomes.

When we take everything we know about childhood trauma, it implores us to do all that we can to prevent these adverse experiences, to create and promote as many protective assets in a child’s life, and develop ways in our own sphere of influence to help.

For instance, data from the Arizona Youth Survey shows that 70.5% of 10th graders in Coconino County are reporting a low commitment to school. This is a tremendous risk factor and something we can change, as a strong connection to a school environment has shown to be extremely powerful when it comes to preventing substance abuse. Our full report on risk factors, including research and background information, can be found HERE

As a non-profit organization that has been here since 1972, the Coalition has attracted hundreds of members, from individuals to businesses, and we are proud of the long history of grassroots efforts for the benefit of children, youth and families in our community. Our CCC&Y Annual Prevention conference has grown year after year and we are looking forward to our largest yet, (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, Oct. 9), at the High Country Conference Center on the Northern Arizona University campus.

Each year, we draw professionals and individuals from around the state who are invested in preventing childhood abuse and addressing the effects of this trauma. We are seeking to heal victims of abuse and to decrease the substance use rates for our county. We also want to give support to those who are on the frontlines, addressing the experiences of individuals who are in recovery.

To find out how communities can strengthen themselves and prevent the high costs and tragedies of childhood trauma, I encourage you to attend the CCC&Y Annual Prevention conference. The 2020 theme is: Finding My Strength, Hope in Connections. General admission is $145, which includes lunch and snacks; discounts are available for CCC&Y members. Becoming a member of CCC&Y is another way to support these initiatives. The annual membership fee is $35 for individuals and $75 for businesses. For more information, visit

— Virginia Watahomigie is the executive director of the Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth, located at 2625 N. King St., in Flagstaff. She can be reached at