Brief Interventions: Adolescent Inhalant Abuse and the Role of Primary Educators


Schoolteachers and counselors already possess the tools needed to intervene in some of the most dangerous behaviors adolescent can engage in. The Behavior is “huffing” the tool for an educator is a brief intervention. Research suggests that inhalant abuse (huffing), while not on the rise, is clearly a popular behavior for adolescents aged 12 and continuing through late adolescence. Huffing can lead to multiple problems that range from sudden death to behavioral problems. Therefore, knowing when a brief intervention is appropriate educators can assist in reducing the morbidity associated with this dangerous behavior. Educators need to know the goals of a brief intervention, how to determine an adolescent’s readiness to change, and the proper methods used in a brief intervention.

In an article published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Lori Whitten (2005) wrote that  adolescents who abuse inhalants are prone to more troubling behaviors and at risk for a variety of problems. In another report sponsored by the Federal Government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) researchers found that by 2005 over 600,000 adolescent initiated huffing inhalants to get high (NSDUH, 2007). Yet another report indicated that in 2003 over 700,000 adolescents aged 12-13 reported inhalant use on at least one occasion in their lifetime. Of the substances, huffed adolescents report using, glue, gasoline, and spray paints. In this age group inhalants were the number one reported used substance to get high even greater than psychotherapeutics, and marijuana. Adolescents 12-13 who have used inhalants report higher incidences of fights at school, stealing, selling drugs, and using other drugs (NSDUH, 2005).

These problem behaviors are more likely to manifest on school campuses or in route to and from school. Such behaviors if looked at without considering substance abuse tend to have youths placed in a category of incorrigible instead of substance abuser. School faculty and staff need to play a larger role in sorting out the difference between isolated incidences of trouble as opposed to morbidity of substance abuse. For that reason, the Brief Intervention is an invaluable tool educators can use to shift the focus of intervention from punitive to therapeutic.

Educators need only be aware of an adolescent’s readiness for change to be effective at brief interventions. Any individual in any circumstance may be in a variety of stages of readiness to change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1984). These stages include a pre-contemplation stage, where the adolescent is not even aware of the need for change. The second stage is contemplation where the adolescent is now aware of a problem but is not yet prepared to invest any energy in solving the problem. The distinguishing feature of this stage is ambivalence. The third stage is preparation, characterized by planning and goal setting. The fourth stage is action where an adolescent will begin to take affirmative steps to reach a goal. The following stage is maintenance where the youth will behave in ways to keep the desired results of meeting their goal in the previous stage.

An adolescent that presents with behavioral problems is anywhere from twice to 10 times more likely than their peers to have used inhalants, and therefore are prime candidates for brief interventions. Educators if taught to interview adolescents effectively can determine with ease these students’ readiness for change. Once readiness is determined, any educator can apply a variety of strategies meant to act as catalysts to promote change. Educators and counselors are not ill equipped to act as change agents when dealing with young people. They simply need the ability to communicate empathy effectively.

If used at every incident of trouble the brief intervention can assist educators and counselors in developing a strategy to assist Adolescents in identifying substance use as the primary cause of negative circumstances. The goal of the brief intervention is to reduce negative behaviors through self-efficacy. The approach is appropriate for slight to moderate substance users and may not always lead to specialized substance abuse treatment as a solution. Strategies will vary depending on the student’s readiness for change. The strategies are merely exercises and assignments designed to elicit responses from the adolescent, such as a pros and cons list, or risk assessments of past behavior. Therefore, educators do not need specialized certifications to perform a brief intervention. Using brief intervention strategies combined with genuine empathy the educator or counselor has the ability to enhance a student’s motivation to change current behavior and may intervene in the youth’s progression to chemical dependency.

There seems to be a gap in services between prevention and treatment. The need of specialized substance abuse treatment will diminish when most of the incidences that arise secondary to substance use are addressed whether in the emergency room or at the junior high school. Educators simply need to be bold and ask the right question “are you getting high?” Those adolescents that missed the message of prevention in 1st through 6th grade will not require costly treatment in junior high and high school. Success is dependent on raising the awareness that behaviors may be a symptom of an underlying substance use problem. Once aware we can contemplate, set goals, and take action on minimizing the impact substance use will have in the lifetime of the occasional user. For more information on enhancing motivation for change and brief interventions, see the SAMHSA website at and view publications Treatment Improvement Protocol (Tip) 34 and 35.

Leaders in education please encourage regular substance use prevention, use, and abuse training of all your faculty, staff, and parents by qualified substance abuse counseling professionals.

By Rhette Piazza, Ba, CAS

NSDUH (2005) Inhalant use and delinquent behaviors among young adolescents The NSDUH Report retrieved from http://oas.
NSDUH (2007) Patterns and trends in inhalant use by adolescent males and females: 2002-2005 The NSDUH Report retrieved from /inhalants /inhalants.pdf
Prochaska, J.O., and DiClemente, C.C.(1984). The Transtheoretical Approach: Crossing Traditional Boundaries of Therapy.
Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin.
Whitten L. (2005) Inhalant abuse disorders tied to cluster of adolescent behavior problems. NIDA Notes Vol. 19, No. 6 Retrieved
from /NNVol19N6/ Inhalant.html