Prevention science in its struggle for a better reputation

In this month’s blog post, Sanela Talič will share her experience in her work as a prevention scientist. Sanela is the Head of Prevention at Institute for Research and Development UTRIP in Slovenia and currently also a PhD student of prevention science at University of Zagreb. In this blog, she will address the importance of acknowledging prevention research as a distinct science.

The year 2006, the time when I first entered the field of prevention. When I look back, it was like a love at first sight. But beginnings are often not easy. Imagine a baby taking his first steps. Awkward steps, lots of downs and ups but determined to continue mainly due to the richness of this field. People I met at this “first stage” of my prevention career were talking in specific jargon and I admit… back then a special “prevention dictionary” would have saved me from unenviable situations. Often I was giving the impression that I totally understand them and agree with them but at the same time there was only one question in my head: “For God’s sake, what are these people talking about?” But that didn’t stop me from “digging deeper” as I wanted to broaden my horizons. Because very soon I realised that prevention is one of those fields where learning never ends. Additionally, I cannot ignore the fact that over these years I met a lot of experts, friends who were consciously or unconsciously giving me immense knowledge. There are many stories that could be shared with you, but this time I decided to focus on the status of prevention and prevention workforce in the society (as I see it). I don’t know if the readers will share same thinking about it, but in my opinion prevention is not recognized as a respectable field. Yet.

Do we know what prevention is?

Have you ever faced the situation when your friends asked you what are you doing (as your job) and you proudly said “prevention”? Expressions on the faces of my friends often tell me everything. They don’t have a clue or they have totally different ideas about what prevention really is. Then you try to explain them and if you can’t explain it short and clear you lose their interest, and you end up explaining it to yourself… for the 26th time. Imagine, even my daughter used to say: “Mum, why don’t you get a normal job so I can easily explain it to my teacher? All other parents have normal jobs.” Should I be proud of those reactions because prevention is a very complex field, bringing together many professionals, different knowledge and experiences? Not to mention that only a small number of people are practising prevention in accordance with professional guidelines?

Being a prevention practitioner is actually a hard and challenging job. If you take it as a mission, it gets a little bit easier. You have to keep up with new knowledge and trends; act as a “watch dog” and be proactive when potentially harmful “preventive” attempts appear (unfortunately, it still happens often); be in contact with all relevant stakeholders; at every opportunity you advocate for quality prevention but if you insist on quality standards you are labelled as arrogant or aggressive (probably these two words need redefinition); you have to be a role model and stick to some ethical principles (e.g. not to connect with the alcohol industry, although we know they have a lot of money, which currently we can only dream of); you have to be innovative and promote prevention programmes so that others “buy it”; and the most difficult challenge is to assure funding. And there are many more.

Spreading the word: Acknowledgement of prevention science

It seems that people don’t recognize prevention as we do. Should this be an alert to all of us who work in this field that we are not trying hard enough to promote it as a science that could be compared to other sciences?

The “non-established” status of prevention is reflected in a very small number of presentations focused solely on prevention at different conferences (e.g. Lisbon Addictions, European alcohol policy conferences and many more), lack of political will to put the prevention efforts on top of their priority lists, lack of knowledge and skills in prevention workforce, lack of prevention related education and training and little availability of prevention specific funding. Alarmingly, 97% of health spending across Europe goes on treatment as compared to only 3% on prevention – just hope that the “struggle” among our “prevention society” for 3% of available funds won’t result in even smaller connection between us and poor reputation of the prevention society in general.

Approaching the Golden Gate to practice

Prevention has a long historical development, and only in these ten years since I entered the field, I faced progress when it comes to research, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us, especially in practice. I have been listening a lot about bridging the gap between research and practice. By now we should have at least a Golden Gate. But the reality is far different. For example, in Slovenia we are implementing three evidence-based programmes, Unplugged, Strengthening Families Programme and Effekt. But can we be proud of it? Let’s look at it closer. Only about 5% of children and families are engaged in these programmes. Can you imagine how much effort was devoted to engage this little group of people? And how much effort we still have to devote for the other who aren’t engaged in any of it? It isn’t an easy job, but at least we have some challenges and work in the future. There are some gaps in our knowledge that could be filled, for example, how to better advocate for prevention programmes and prevention science in general, how to reach more people and educate them about prevention, search for new financial resources etc.

Striving for a distinct “prevention science”

Knowledge, experience and the findings of our fellow researchers are of great help in our efforts, but in my opinion it is about time to strengthen our activities in practice to show “society” that our work is worthwhile. And when our friends will ask us what we do, everyone will understand it and will recognize prevention as an honourable science. Like today that is the case for psychology, law, medicine etc. And our children won’t have to sweat while explaining what their parents are doing.

About the author:

Sanela Talič is the Head of Prevention at Institute for Research and Development UTRIP, Slovenia. She is the national coordinator and master trainer for school-based prevention programmes Unplugged and Effekt and family-based programme Strengthening Families Programme. Currently she is a PhD student of prevention science at University of Zagreb. You can contact her through email: sanela[at]institut-utrip.si.


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