Tamika Zapolski

IU researcher helping young people develop skills to handle the types of problems that increase their likelihood of using drugs

Adolescent drug use is a critical issue in Indiana for several reasons: teens in Indiana use drugs (like alcohol and marijuana) at rates higher than the national average; adolescent drug use is tied to problems in school and relationships and young people who use drugs are more likely to develop substance use disorders as adults.

Addressing this issue has been particularly difficult because middle-and high-school students are hard to reach outside the school day, and schools — particularly those whose students are most at risk — generally do not have the resources to provide drug prevention programs.

A project, led by Tamika Zapolski, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at IUPUI, for Indiana University’s Responding to the Addictions Grand Challenge initiative, tests a potential solution by offering a nine-week, in-school program that teaches teens how to deal with strong emotions and manage stress. The program aims to reduce drug use by helping young people develop skills to handle the types of problems that increase their likelihood of using drugs.

The program is based on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents, a skill-building process that has proven effective in reducing drug use among teens in treatment for drug problems.

Zapolski's project is the first to test the program in a school setting and to focus on preventing rather than treating drug use disorders. Additionally, Zapolski's project works with racially diverse students in Marion County and rural students in South Central Indiana.

Delivered once a week during lunch, homeroom or study periods, the program works with small groups of ten to fifteen middle- or high-schoolers whom school administrators have identified as being at risk for drug use. Two program leaders guide students through discussions and activities designed to build skills including mindfulness (awareness of what is happening in the present moment), coping with emotions, managing stress and communicating effectively in tense situations.

Researchers measure students' skill levels in these areas and their likelihood of engaging in drug use before and after the nine-week program. Zapolski's research team will also follow up with these students several times over the six months after the program ends, interview students and school staff members about their experiences with the program, and test a "control" group of students with similar backgrounds that are assigned to a typical age-appropriate health course instead of the drug prevention program.

The program will serve approximately 300 teens over a two-year period.

Researchers are currently reviewing the data collected from the first round of the program. Although it is too soon to report results, early feedback from schools and students shows that teens in the program have fewer conflicts with their peers, build stronger relationships and feel more able to cope with emotional challenges.

If the program is successful in preventing and reducing drug use, Zapolski hopes to expand to more schools in Indiana and to make the project sustainable by training school personnel such as school nurses or social workers to deliver the program.