A new therapy program in Canada aims to help teens steer clear of addiction later in life by identifying personality traits that lead to risky behaviour.

Preventure, a program developed by University of Montreal psychiatry professor Patricia Conrod, focuses on studying risky personality traits that she says have been shown to create pathways to addiction.

Most teens who try alcohol, opioids or methamphetamine do not become addicted, but the program focuses on what’s different about the minority that do.

According to Preventure, the four main traits for addiction risk among children are:

  • Sensation-seeking
  • Impulsiveness
  • Anxiety sensitivity
  • Hopelessness

The traits have some commonalities, but also many differences. For instance, a child who begins using drugs out of a sense of hopelessness has a different goal than one who seeks thrills.

Impulsiveness is common among people with ADHD, while hopelessness is often linked to depression.

Sensation-seeking is not connected to other diagnoses, but it raises addiction risk because people who are drawn to an intense or dangerous experience will likely enjoy drug use.

For youth who have these personality traits, Preventure attempts to counteract the risk with cognitive behavioural-based coping strategies.

“What we try to do is work with schools or work with individuals or clinics and offer the program prior to the onset of any problems,” Conrod said in an interview with CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.

While genetic predisposition and the environment are strong factors that can lead to “substance misuse,” Conrod said, research has shown that personality traits are “very strong predictors.”

She added: “What’s really become quite fascinating through the research we’ve done on the program, is that by helping young people learn to manage those traits, they are protected against early onset substance use and a number of other health and behavioural problems.”

Preventure, said Conrod, has taken evidence-based principles from other mental health interventions and adapted them for young people.

The program also avoids stigmatization in order to reduce the chances that kids will take a label like “high risk” and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“They really are just coping skills workshops that young people use as they explore their own personality and character, and learn these traits to channel their own behaviours toward their long-term goals,” Conrod said.

Preventure has been tested in eight randomized trials in Canada, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands. The tests found reductions in binge drinking, frequent drug use and alcohol-related problems.

The Preventure program is a test given to children in middle schools. Later on in the school year, there are two 90-minute groups sessions with a school facilitator who has been trained by Conrod’s team.