Alignment and Synergy for Prevention Leadership

May 25, 2023

By Janice Williams, Ph.D. Retired


During the month of May, we recognize prevention week through the lens of substance use and misuse. The prevention narrative has swung from substance abuse prevention to substance use and misuse, and inclusion of mental health well-being. The opioid epidemic opened the doors for more visibility on prevention with emphasis on upstream strategies.


Leaders in the field of substance misuse prevention now receive training in harm reduction techniques, mental health promotion, social determinants of health, and adverse childhood experiences. All arenas have significant roles in contributing to an understanding of the work of preventionists.


This May, our duty becomes recognizing the champions who lead the charge for change in substance use and misuse prevention. For preventionists, clearly defined strategies and a strategic action plan for skill development are necessary to continue to support growth of prevention with a distinct trajectory for change management and leadership. This year marks significant changes and attention needed to keep substance use disorder prevention on policymakers’ radar. With this bold, expansive recognition, prevention practitioners are asking, "what does it take to manage a leadership role for prevention especially along the continuum of intervention, treatment, and recovery?"


It is quite evident that the role of a prevention professional is challenging, changing, and evolving. There is a challenge to be inclusive of professional ideologies, different genres, and recognition of varying multi-sectors in order to become a recognized "leader.” As the voices of advocates and professionals are pronounced, so must the voices of encouragement for those to take on leadership roles.


Becoming a leader is not an automatic feat. Leaders align themselves within supportive infrastructures and are mentored and guided throughout the development of an organization. Others utilize the many programs and resources made available through federal and international leadership development opportunities such as those listed below.


The US Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (SAMHSA/CSAP) instituted the CSAP Mentoring and Fellowship programs as well as the Prevention Leadership Summit hosted in conjunction with the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD) annual meetings, supporting recognized leaders within state prevention systems. Over increasingly challenging years, a concerted effort for the prevention workforce has been mounted. Within other HHS Divisions, the offices of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-P) and Human Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) include emphasis on workforce and leadership for prevention professionals tackling a myriad of health issues.


The National Council on Mental Wellbeing has a management academy that has gained momentum for varying segments of the behavioral health workforce executive ladder. Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO) is supporting an intensive experience Diverse Executives Leading in Public Health (DELPH) to ensure professionals in public health are equipped with necessary leadership skills. In January, 2020, prevention thought leaders convened in Phoenix by American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP) to discuss prevention workforce challenges and opportunities which culminated in a proceedings document outlining outcomes for the prevention workforce, inclusive of recognizing opportunities for leadership development. Among the convening participants was the International Society of Substance Use Prevention and Treatment (ISSUP) which identifies a Universal Prevention Curriculum for Substance Use with alignment to the development of leadership skills. Recommendations and outcomes from the proceedings document can be useful for strategic planning and moving leadership concepts forward in 2023.


The current momentum for improvement and innovations is further synergized through various leadership and management organizations that include the Center for Creative Leadership, offering daily leadership affirmations; the Aspen Institute leadership programs efforts to elevate and connect leaders; HUE Life, LLC managing cohort experiences for prevention leaders, and American Public Health Association (APHA) Section for Community Health Workers, providing tools to uplift community health worker leadership.


Alignment and synergy are necessary for practitioners in the "prevention space" to be effective and protect/promote the advances that have been made in the realm of prevention science. Also noteworthy at this crucial period in the evolution of prevention strategy development and implementation is the drastic need to take care of those who deliver prevention services. One resource, Heart Centered Leadership1 brings attention to the mindful leader and the need to "look within" on the journey of caretaker and taking care of self. So, as we travel the road with encouragement to take on the leadership role, with all the tools to build capacity, let's not forget that to lead is by choice and commitment, aligned with the reliance on, and inclusion of others to reach our goals.



1 Steinbrecher, Susan, & Bennett, Joel. Heart Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well. Sustainable Path Publishing, Second edition.


Janice Williams, Ph.D. Retired

Former: State BH Leader (LA), Prevention Senior Policy Advisor (ONDCP), 

NASADAD/NPN Representative (NC), SAMHSA/ CSAP Prevention Program Mentor, 

American Psychological Association Minority Fellow

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