Adolescent Substance Use Prevention in School-Based Health Centers


One thing that stands in the way of that is drug and alcohol use. Drinking and substance misuse can negatively affect young people’s school performance, future job prospects, and physical and mental health, damaging their lives well into adulthood.

In addition, we know that substance use rarely occurs in a vacuum: other co-occurring factors in young people’s environments can affect their wellbeing and contribute to or exacerbate substance use. Therefore, in our work on substance use prevention, we recognize the need to proactively address social influencers of health, which include poverty, racism, homelessness, system involvement, trauma, and community health and safety.

School-based health centers (SBHCs) provide access to healthcare for our nation’s most vulnerable youth. We believe that connections to schools, healthcare providers, and community resources can be key elements in addressing these social influencers and ultimately preventing adolescent substance use.

This toolkit contains a wide variety of resources designed to support school-based health professionals in implementing SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment) and creating culture shifts related to preventing adolescent substance use.

SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment) is an innovative, evidence-based approach to addressing drug and alcohol use with adolescents. Its core components include

  • Regular, de-stigmatized, and universal screening for substance use using validated tools;
  • Consideration of substance use as a continuum rather than a dichotomous “addicted versus not addicted” judgment;
  • Use of motivational interviewing-based, patient-centered talk versus directive, prescriptive talk;
  • Broad understanding of “referral to treatment,” to include traditional treatment as well as support and anticipatory guidance for all levels of use or abstinence, including harm reduction methods when appropriate;
  • Facilitation of smooth, bidirectional transitions among primary care, behavioral health, and specialty addiction treatment when indicated.

While SBIRT is widely recommended by adolescent health organizations, it remains under-implemented. Common perceived barriers include limited time during the patient visit, lack of knowledge and training, fearing negative patient reactions, and feeling uncomfortable discussing substance use. This toolkit includes information and tools designed to counter these barriers.

Adolescent substance use is common. More than half of high school seniors in the United States have used alcohol in the last year; more than a third have used marijuana, and 15% of high school students report having ever used select illicit or injection drugs1, 2. When school-based health centers implement SBIRT, they are addressing a behavior common among teenage students, as adolescents use substances for a variety of reasons. The adolescent brain is oriented to favor new experiences and engage in risky behaviors, meaning drug use may coincide with these normal developmental urges. In addition, adolescents may use substances as they seek to find out who they are as individuals, try to deal with problems, do better in school, or react to social pressure from friends.3

Adolescent substance use can result in negative consequences. A number of negative consequences are more likely to occur when adolescents use substances like alcohol and marijuana4, 5. Like primary care and pediatric health settings, school-based health centers play an important role in conveying clear and consistent messaging about the potential outcomes of using substances during adolescence.

Adolescence is a critical time to prevent later addiction. When health professionals implement the SBIRT model with adolescent patients, they are acting to 1) help delay initiation of use with teens who have not tried substances; 2) increase the motivation of teens who do use to cut back or abstain; and, 3) help teens experiencing a substance use disorder get help through specialized treatment. Because the large majority of Americans experiencing a substance use disorder started using before the age of 186, health professionals can play an important role in preventing addiction later in life.

Screening tools work. Screening instruments such as the CRAFFT and the S2BI are validated specifically with adolescents, take little time to complete, and are feasible for routine use in health care settings. These screening tools can be administered verbally by a health professional or self-administered by an adolescent patient, either on paper or in electronic format. By scoring answers to just a few questions, health professionals can quickly learn how often an adolescent uses substances, which substances are used, and what consequences the adolescent is experiencing associated with use. These tools also indicate to the health professional what response is most appropriate.

Brief interventions are well suited for adolescents. Short conversations that employ principles of motivational interviewing can increase the likelihood that an adolescent will cut back or abstain from substance use7. Motivational interviewing is a technique well suited for adolescents because of their desire for autonomy and resistance to authority8. Health care professional can learn how to perform effective brief interventions by participating in a short training session.

Most teens who would benefit from treatment do not receive it. There is a large gap between the number of adolescents who could benefit from specialized treatment and the percentage of those who actually obtain it9. By identifying these students and proactively connecting them to further assessment, health professionals increase access to critical services. Several types of treatment are available specifically for adolescents, and studies show they can produce outcomes such as decreased use, decreased criminal-legal system involvement, and improved psychological adjustment and school performance.

There’s room for improvement. Many health care professionals do not routinely address substance use with adolescent patients. In one study, 82% of 10th graders reported seeing a doctor in the past year, but only half of them were asked about drinking alcohol10. Of those who were frequent drinkers, only 25% were asked. Meanwhile, only 27% of marijuana users were advised to reduce or quit by a doctor. Failing to ask about substance use is a missed opportunity to provide important care. By implementing a standardized SBIRT workflow, SBHCs can help ensure all patients are responded to with the appropriate positive reinforcement, anticipatory guidance/brief advice, brief intervention, or referral to treatment.

SBHCs are uniquely positioned to support adolescent substance use prevention.

Students are 21 times more likely to visit an SBHC for behavioral health care than they are to visit a community clinic11.

Students with access to behavioral health services at SBHCs report lower frequencies of cigarette, marijuana, and unauthorized prescription drug use12.

SBHC providers who have relationships with teens may be better situated to identify and respond to substance use in their adolescent patients.


  • Christina’s Why SBIRT video
  • NCBH Change Package
  • The Evidence for School-Based SBIRT
  • AAP Policy Statement: Substance Use Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment
  • AAP Clinical Report: Substance Use Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment
  • School-Based Health Clinics: Critical Access Points For Confronting The Addiction Epidemic
  • Alcohol Use Screening and Behavioral Counseling with Adolescents in Primary Care: A Call to Action
  • Abt briefs – waiting on Leigh to send links (emailed her on 7/20)


  1. Monitoring the Future: 2020 Survey Results. National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from:
  2. CDC. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2019. MMWR Suppl 2020;69(1):1-83.
  3. NIDA. 2020, May 24. Why do adolescents take drugs?. Retrieved from on 2021, July 12
  4. NIDA. 2021, June 25. Alcohol. Retrieved from on 2021, July 12
  5. NIDA. 2021, June 25. Marijuana. Retrieved from on 2021, July 12
  6. “Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30” SAMHSA – The TEDS Report.
  7. Substance Use Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment. COMMITTEE ON SUBSTANCE USE AND PREVENTION. Pediatrics Jul 2016, 138 (1) e20161210; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1210
  8. Silvers JA, Squeglia LM, Rømer Thomsen K, Hudson KA, & Feldstein Ewing SW (2019). Hunting for what works: Adolescents in addiction treatment. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 43(4), 578-592
  9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings. NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013
  10. Hingson RW, Wenxing Z, Iannotti, RJ Simons-Morton, B. Physician Advice to Adolescents About Drinking and Other Health Behaviors. Pediatrics 2013;131;249.
  11. Juszcack, L., Melinkovich, P., & Kaplan, D. (2003) Use of health and mental health services by adolescents across multiple delivery sites. Journal of Adolescent Health; 32(6 Suppl): 108-118.
  12. Paschall, M.J., & Bersamin, M. (2018). School-based mental health services, suicide risk, and substance use among at-risk adolescents in Oregon. Preventive Medicine; 106; 209-215.

Best Practices for SBIRT in SBHCs

The uniquely integrated and collaborative SBHC model allows for an expanded version of Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) that is capable of helping youth in addition to substance use prevention.

While we believe that each best practice is important on its own, we recognize that many components are also aspirational and take time, so we encourage sites to approach full implementation as a long-term change process.

We also expect that any SBHCs pursuing SBIRT implementation are already proficient in the School-Based Health Alliance’s Core Competencies for SBHCs.

SBIRT as an Alternative to Discipline

SBIRT as an Alternative to Discipline

Learn More

Billing & Reimbursement

Billing & Reimbursement

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Demonstrating Value and Positive Impacts

Demonstrating Value and Positive Impacts

Learn More

Workforce Training and Support

Workforce Training and Support

Learn More

About the SBIRT-in-SBHCs Initiative

From 2015 until 2021, the School-Based Health Alliance, with generous support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, led an effort to test the adaptation of SBIRT for youth substance use prevention into school health care settings. The process of training school-based health providers in SBIRT and testing the feasibility of the approach across a variety of sites around the country afforded us the opportunity to confront implementation challenges, share our expertise, and identify keys to success. Through our own projects, as a partner on numerous other projects, and as founders and leaders of the National School-Based SBIRT Learning Community, we continue to promote and refine the SBIRT in-school model.

Our work focused on three areas:

  1. Increased training for the SBHC field, using new models and leveraging technology to serve more providers and centers via national learning collaboratives, while also creating legacy training tools.
  2. Development of the National School-Based SBIRT Learning Community to connect a diverse group of researchers, providers, administrators, and others to foster collaboration and sharing of tools and resources, increase partnerships and publication, and collectively agree on best practices to share with the field.
  3. Creation of a comprehensive web-based toolkit, drawing from lessons learned through SBHA’s implementation experiences as well as those of the National School-Based SBIRT Learning Community. The toolkit will be a legacy for the field, and a resource for SBHCs who would like to implement SBIRT on their own.

SBIRT-in-SBHCs participants

  • SBIRT 1.0
    • Cohort I
      • Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center (Century High School SBHC) (Oregon)
      • La Clinica de la Raza (Roosevelt High School SBHC) (California)
      • OHSU (Merlo Station High School SBHC) (Oregon)
      • Native American Health Center (School-Based Health Department) (California)
    • Cohort II
      • Catholic University (Northwood High School SBHC) Washington, DC
      • Esperanza Health Center, Illinois
      • Howard University, Washington, DC
      • St. Frances Academy SBHC, Maryland
      • University of Illinois SBHCs, Illinois
      • Youth Development, Inc., New Mexico
  • SBIRT 2.0
    • Child and Family Agency of SE Connecticut (Connecticut)
      • New London High School SBHC
      • Fitch High School SBHC
      • Pawcatuck Middle School SBHC
    • Great Lakes Bay Health Centers (Michigan)
      • Arthur Hill High School SBHC
      • Saginaw High School SBHC
    • Thunder Bay Community Health Service (Michigan)
      • Onaway Area Community School SBHC
      • Cheboygan Intermediate School SBHC
    • Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center (Hawaii)
      • Waianae High School SBHC
      • Waianae Intermediate School SBHC
  • SBIRT 3.0
    • Cohort I
      • Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut (Connecticut)
        • Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School SBHC
        • West Side Middle School SBHC
      • Erie Family Health Center (Erie Amundsen SBHC) ,Illinois
      • Jessie Trice Community Health System (Florida)
        • Miami Northwestern/ John H Peavy SBHC
        • Brownsville Middle School SBHC
      • LifeLong Medical Care (California)
        • Elmhurst United Health Center
        • West Oakland Middle School Health Center
      • Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation (Terry Health Center) Texas
      • NYC Health and Hospitals Gotham School-based Health (New York)
        • Gotham School-based Health Corlears Educational Campus
        • Gotham School-based Health Bushwick Educational Campus
      • PanCare of Florida, Inc. (Florida)
        • PanCare of Florida at Rosenwald High School
        • PanCare of Florida at Rutherford High School
      • Rainelle Medical Center (West Virginia)
        • Greenbrier West Wellness Center
        • Eastern Greenbrier Wellness Center
      • Valley Health Care, Inc. (West Virginia)
        • Elkins Middle School SBHC
        • Elkins High School SBHC
        • Tygarts Valley Middle/ High School SBHC
    • Cohort II
      • Cahaba Medical Care Foundation (Alabama)
        • Cahaba Medical Care – CJ Donald Elementary
        • Cahaba Medical Care – Brent Elementary
      • The Health Center (Washington) Student Health Options dba the Health Center
      • Methodist Health System Foundation (Louisiana)
        • Chalmette High School School-Based Health Center
        • Chalmette High School School-Based Health Center Rowley Outreach
      • University of Kansas Health System (Campus Care Clinic at Topeka HS) (Kansas)
      • The Wright Center (Pennsylvania)
        • West Scranton School-Based Practice
        • Northeast Scranton Intermediate School-Based Health Center
        • South Scranton Intermediate School-Based Health Center


  • 2018 Implementation Brief? What else from before my time?
  • SBHA 2020 Infographic
  • Abt briefs? Which ones?
  • Hilton (2016) Youth Substance Use Prevention and Early Intervention Strategic Initiative

SBHCs and other school-based health providers have a unique opportunity to meet young people where they are and offer expert support and clinical treatment for the wide range of issues that may affect them as adolescents, as well as establish patterns for a health adulthood. Research shows that early intervention, education, and prevention, as well as strong relationships with trusted adults, are often key to young people’s future success, and a lifelong deterrent to substance use.

School-Based Health Alliance has invested many years in refining our model for school-based SBIRT. While we have a wealth of knowledge and resources to share on the topic of substance use prevention, we are especially proud of our work to position adolescent substance use in the context of the whole adolescent. Through this toolkit, our resources, technical assistance and consulting work, we provide data-driven support for the many co-occurring issues that can affect young people, and often lead to substance use.

We encourage any SBHCs or school-based providers interested in addressing youth substance use prevention to integrate their efforts with other measures and interventions designed to meet adolescents where they are—in developmentally appropriate and respectful ways, within the context of their unique needs and experiences—and in collaboration with other school and community partners.