May 15, 2023

Strengthening Communities to Support Recovery & Prevent Substance Use

By Damon Davis, Prevention & Education VISTA, & Ashley Yaugher, PhD, Health & Wellness Faculty

Aspen Trees

In a time when we are bombarded with unprecedented advertisements and marketing campaigns promoting connection through the use of substances (e.g., alcohol; Harting, 2003); the importance of healthy connection to family, friends, and community is becoming more obvious. The factors that influence a person's susceptibility to developing a substance use disorder (SUD) are in part determined by environmental and biological factors long before the first use of substances (Pettersen et al., 2019). Individual choices are heavily influenced by relationships and connections or lack thereof (Hartling, 2003; Pettersen et al., 2019). Communities that are connected will be more able help provide stability and structure where gaps in a person's own social circles exist and increase effective substance use prevention (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2022).

Building a robust and well-connected community is vital in recovery efforts. The framework and support of a strong community can be a significant factor in preventing and promoting healing in recovery from SUD (Pettersen et al., 2019). Individuals who experience SUD often report a lack of connection and feeling isolated from family, friends, and community members. Most, if not all pathways to recovery place emphasis on belonging (Moore & Coyhis, 2010). For example, Recovery Dharma describes an approach to recovery based on Buddhist principles, which starts with the Sangha, a group of “Wise Friends and Mentors.” The Red Road to Wellbriety offers the concept of creating a “Healing Forrest” wherein each tree represents a member of society that provide protection, direction, and understanding (Moore & Coyhis, 2010).

“It takes a village” is a familiar phrase that one often hears in conversations where the topic of building strong communities is a focal point. SUD recovery can be viewed through a similar lens. Those at risk of developing a SUD often lack the social support and resources of persons not at risk and lack of social connection is a risk factor for returning to substance use when in recovery (Pettersen et al., 2019). Furthermore, research has shown that community engagement brings together the skillset, lived experience, and know-how of a wide array of individuals to create programs that work for all members of the community (SAMSHA, 2022). Community engagement and connection supports substance use prevention, intervention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery support services (SAMSHA, 2022).

By strengthening community health, we can support recovery and SUD prevention. Those with a SUD will also benefit from compassionate non-stigmatizing interactions. Non-stigmatizing interactions and compassion start with using person-first language, where we recognize the person firstly a person (e.g., saying a “person with a substance use disorder” rather than “addict”; start learning more about changing language and supporting loved ones in recovery from the USU Extension HEART Initiative). We can promote well-being and healthy lifestyles by engaging in social activities at the community level (Jones et al., 2013). Here are a few suggestions to build connection and strengthen your community:

  1. Volunteer or join a local Coalition- Find a local chapter or group that stands for something you are passionate about and get involved (SAMHSA, 2022).
  2. Continue learning and sharing with others- Learn about person-first or non-stigmatizing language; evidence-based treatments; and recovery pathways that support people in your community (Taylor-Olsen et al., 2021).
  3. Connect with friends and loved ones- Schedule uninterrupted time to talk with loved ones who have SUD or are in recovery, use active listening to engage with them, and express hope for the future (Taylor-Olsen & Yaugher, 2021).

We can all shine a light on the importance of a healthy community in SUD prevention and recovery. Building connections and supporting those around us are key in these efforts. Trying new activities will afford you the opportunity to participate in and strengthen your community in meaningful ways (Jones et al., 2013). Start strengthening your community today by volunteering or joining a local coalition, learning about SUD, and connecting with the ones you love. Additional resources are provided below for more information and support.

Additional Resources: 

Substance Use Resources: 

Emotional Wellness Resources: 


  • Hartling, L. M. (2003). Prevention through connection: A collaborative approach to women's substance abuse. Stone Center, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.
  • Jones, M., Kimberlee, R., Deave, T., & Evans, S. (2013). The role of community centre-based arts, leisure and social activities in promoting adult well-being and healthy lifestyles. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(5), 1948-1962.
  • Moore, D., & Coyhis, D. (2010). The multicultural wellbriety peer recovery support program: Two decades of community-based recovery. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 28(3), 273-292.
  • Pettersen, H., Landheim, A., Skeie, I., Biong, S., Brodahl, M., Oute, J., & Davidson, L. (2019). How social relationships influence substance use disorder recovery: a collaborative narrative study. Substance abuse: research and treatment, 13, 1178221819833379.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Community Engagement: An Essential Component of an Effective and Equitable Substance Use Prevention System. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP22-06-01-005. Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2022.
  • Taylor-Olsen, C., Judd, H., Yaugher, A. C. M, Bench, S. W., & Meyer, R. (2021). Reducing stigma toward opioid use disorder treatment [Fact sheet]. Utah State University Extension.
  • Taylor-Olsen, C. & Yaugher, A. C. (2021). How to support a loved one in recovery. Utah State University Extension: Relationships.