IU and community partnership making a difference in the lives of teens
As manager for Centerstone Wayne County Children and Family Services, Kris Nunn and her colleagues have been helping teens struggling with substance use issues for years.
But a partnership with Indiana University's Matt Aalsma has helped mainstream that work and provide an evidence-based approach Nunn said would not have existed otherwise.
"We are a rural area and we have little exposure to very high-quality, evidence-based training and materials," Nunn said. "So, having the IU expertise assisting us closely in putting together a research-based, contemporary program has been great for our area."
A part of the Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge, Aalsma's project brings together the criminal justice system with community mental health providers to provide teens who are in the juvenile justice system with screenings for substance use, and diversion to treatment for those who do have substance use issues.
The project also provides training to case managers and counselors working with justice-involved youth to identify those at risk and to help provide access to appropriate care.
"Our goal is to prevent these young people from entering the criminal justice system’s deep end," said Aalsma, a professor of pediatrics and psychology in the IU School of Medicine. "If we do not intervene now and provide these adolescents with the support and resources they need, they get further and further into the criminal justice system and eventually end up in the adult system."
For many people who have substance use issues, particularly teens, the first time their substance use is addressed is when they become involved in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, screenings for substance use and diversion to treatment have not always been a part of the plan.
Prior to working with Aalsma and his team, Pam McCombs, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of a community living program for children and adolescents at Valley Oaks Health in Tippecanoe County, would receive referrals for children through the county’s probation office. But she was not familiar with what substance use looked like in youth and primarily worked with group-based services, a process that could be difficult depending on the number of children needing services at any one time.
Now, McCombs works with the assessment process developed by Aalsma and through the program is able to see children one-on-one instead of relying on a group setting.
"Because we are screening these children for substance use issues, this program has allowed us to really hone in on that issue along with any mental health issues," she said. "By addressing this now, we are helping so many young people gain the support and skills they need to avoid substance use issues down the road and essentially avoid a lot of suffering and subsequent damage that can happen when not addressed."
In addition to helping teens in the juvenile justice system, the project also has allowed Nunn and others to implement the program in area schools, helping young people cope with stress and better manage their emotions, all of which can help them avoid turning to substance use.
Nunn has also helped to organize pro-social events such as the Drug Free Youth Festival in Wayne County, which provided an afternoon of positive social events for young people in the county and reinforced the idea that extracurricular activities can play an important role in terms of substance prevention.
"It was such an amazing event, especially for us as a rural community," Nunn said. "We were able to rally the community around plugging kids in and providing opportunities to get kids into activities and extracurriculars."
Aalsma's project is currently implemented in two counties: Tippecanoe and Wayne, but has been so successful that it recently received a $4.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). That funding has allowed the project to move into eight additional counties, some of which have very limited resources. Part of NIDA’s Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network, Aalsma’s project is the only one focused on juveniles.
"I’m really grateful to the Grand Challenges program because it helped us create a pilot that then allowed us to create a bigger program," Aalsma said. "This really allows us to not only reach more youth, but to reach youth in counties that have little to no resources for this."
While Nunn and McCombs know they cannot completely eradicate substance use among youth, they said partnering with Aalsma and his team has allowed them to improve their efforts in helping young people in their communities and continuing to advance the ways in which they do their work.
"Unfortunately, we will always have youth in our community that will need substance treatment," Nunn said. "I think the exciting thing that has come out of this partnership is the amount of expertise that we have been able to put into the community. It is reproducing itself and has raised the bar of treatment in our area. So, we are very thankful for our partnership with IU."