HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - This week is National Prevention Week, a national public education platform bringing together communities and organizations to raise awareness about the importance of substance use prevention and positive mental health, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 

In the commonwealth, officials are working toward primary prevention and data-driven decision making. 

“We're really here to raise awareness about National Prevention Week,” said Jen Smith, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP). “So often we get really tied up in talking about overdose deaths and treatment, but we often overlook the vital importance of trying to catch some of those issues upstream,” she added. 

Prevention advocates say the week highlights resources and tools, like the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), a survey of students in grades six, eight, ten and twelve that allows the tracking of prevention efforts over time.  

“The most striking and troubling area our youth are reporting through PAYS is a stark increase in depression and anxiety,” said Mike Pennington, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). 

Even though survey data show a downward trend in substance use, the increase in depression and anxiety among teens is concerning. 

"It continues to prove out the trend that youth substance use overall is decreasing, which is a really good thing. What it does show, however, is that there is a real increase in depressive symptoms among youth. For youth who have depressive symptoms, it's much more common for them to experience some type of substance use,” said Smith.  

Smith says the data is vital, especially when studying recent trends and the impact of COVID-19. 

"Monitoring this data, collecting it, is critically important to ensuring that we maintain the funding and resources to support all these necessary prevention programs,” said Smith. “Critically important that we look at how COVID impacted our youth. I think we all suspected there were going to be some additional mental health concerns,” she added.  

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), DDAP, PCCD, and other state agencies are all determined to make the necessary investments to develop best practices for schools when addressing impacts of the pandemic. 

“Through PDE's state system of support, we created a preventative framework and a community of practice model, to share best practices, vetted resources and build capacity. This will help us use a data level approach with our intermediate units, partners in the areas of school mental health, and social emergency management,” said Dr. Debora Carrera, Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “Through our collaborative work with PCCD, we developed a variety of additional PAYS reports to provide opportunities for analysis that will increase data usage for prevention and intervention purposes,” Dr. Carrera added. “Prevention happens here.” 

Officials, community leaders, and researchers say the investments will ultimately benefit the entire commonwealth; local governments, tax payers, and schools. 

“The more that we can show that we can do this efficiently, that we can provide a return on investment and reduce the burden on school budgets, on community budgets, governments, the better we all are,” said Damon Jones, Associate Research Professor at the Penn State University Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “Prevention is valuable,” he added. 

Prevention advocates and substance use disorder (SUD) stakeholders say making the investment in data driven decision making and mental health resources now, can prevent a future spike in substance use among teens and adolescents.