Addressing Massachusetts’ toughest public health challenges, such as substance abuse, requires a greater focus on proven prevention methods, EDC’s Tracy Desovich told lawmakers at the Massachusetts State House on Wednesday.
“There is a lot we can do to protect children, youth, and families,” said Desovich, a prevention expert with nearly 30 years of experience. “It’s not a mystery—there’s a lot of research on how to do this.”
Desovich and Kim Netter, also of EDC, were invited to brief lawmakers and legislative aides by State Representative Jim Cantwell, who is the sponsor of a bill to create a new statewide commission charged with improving behavioral health in the Commonwealth through proven prevention programs.
“Without prevention experts at the table, our Commonwealth will be far less effective at protecting our children and families from issues like the opiate epidemic,” said Cantwell in a statement. “Experienced specialists like EDC, who know how to work with community and state leaders, can help us identify what works in prevention, and point us to the most promising programs inside and outside the Commonwealth, to promote behavioral health.”
The focus of the session was to impress upon lawmakers the importance of prevention initiatives—sometimes called “upstream” approaches—in improving public health outcomes. Desovich said that although Massachusetts has been a national model for substance abuse treatment programs, a greater, more systematic effort is needed to understand and prevent addiction in the first place.
“Figuring out why people in the Commonwealth are abusing heroin, prescription drugs, and alcohol is an essential part of saving lives,” she said. “Prevention efforts need to be coordinated, and they need to be based on the evidence of what works.”
Netter, who is currently leading a national center to increase states’ capacity to respond to the mental health needs of children, offered lessons learned from EDC’s decade-long leadership of SAMHSA’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students program. Over 350 communities nationwide participated in the program, which brought together law enforcement and juvenile justice personnel, mental health professionals, and school administrators to tackle complex issues such as drug abuse, truancy, and school violence.
Citing the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, Netter explained how prevention and early intervention initiatives are essential in breaking the cycle of physical and behavioral health issues that can be caused by early exposures to violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and living in poverty.
“Instilling social and emotional learning and resilience into a child’s world will give that child the skills he or she needs to weather the adversity that they may encounter in life,” she said. “We know what works—collaboration, intentional planning based on data, and starting early. This is how you create real benefits now and in the future.”