When communities set out to reduce teen alcohol and drug use, they are often hampered by a lack of understanding and denial about the problem. EDC is working with 18 Boston-area towns to collect information on youth drinking and drug use and to help inform responses that will work.
With funding from the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation, EDC is administering health surveys to middle and high school students in every other year for 10 years. Since 2006, EDC has surveyed 23,000 teens about substance use, smoking, violence, mental health and suicide, sexual behavior, physical activity, and diet. Each community receives local data to assist in targeting problems and monitoring progress.
“In order for these communities to reduce and prevent adolescent substance abuse, they need access to the best research available,” says Martin Cohen, president of the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation. “They need not only research about what strategies work best, but also local data on youth drinking and drug use and other related behaviors to help guide their approach.”
EDC’s MetroWest Technical Assistance Center (MTAC) is working with eleven of these towns to understand which community factors put youth at risk or protect them from substance abuse, and also how ready the community is to make changes and offer prevention programs. MTAC assists them as they select strategies that will best meet their needs.
In Needham, for example, local school, police, and community leaders came together to examine teen substance use. They developed a task force to focus on substance use policies in schools and in the community, determining where the current policies were lacking and making recommendations for improvements.
As a result of the task force, communication has improved, according to MTAC’s project director Diane Barry. Policies are more widely known and enforced, and residents are informed when violations occur.
Communities have also developed creative education and outreach strategies. One town, for example, gathered information on parents’ beliefs about students’ substance abuse. Parents were then invited to community forums to discuss students’ behaviors and attitudes. “These forums are very eye-opening for some parents, and can help build essential parental support networks and motivation for strategies to address the problem,” says Barry.
Informal coffee meetings hosted by parents in their homes give them another place to discuss strategies and offer support for each other in facing the problem head-on. Needham used this approach to reach more than 550 parents.
The MetroWest communities supported by MTAC are using a range of strategies that are supported by research. They include the provision of substance-free activities for youth, improved school-based treatment and referral systems, substance abuse prevention curriculum in middle and high school grades, and working with local liquor stores to ensure that young adults don’t purchase alcohol for minors.
Originally published on August 11, 2008