September 11, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 31—Helping at-risk and justice-involved youth

Every September, the country honors National Recovery Month to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and to celebrate the people who recover. With this month and beyond, Indiana University continues to address substance use through its Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge. One important area of focus is prevention. Adolescence is a critical time for young people, especially when it comes to relationship building and choosing whether or not to experiment with substance use. IU researcher Tamika Zapolski said that is why preventative measures for young people are critical. We know that adolescence is a time when people start to experiment or engage in substance use, Zapolski says. Furthermore, the earlier someone starts to use substances, even if it's experimental, it increases their risk for continuation of substance use. So, Zapolski says, if we can intervene early for those that are going to possibly be at risk, we can offset some of the problems that they might see later on. Zapolski is working to help Indiana teens at risk of developing a substance use disorder through her project Going for Goals. Part of IU’s Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenge, the nine-week program brings together small groups of seventh-through-12-grade students with Zapolski and her team, who lead them through discussions and activities designed to build skills including mindfulness, coping with emotions, managing stress and communicating effectively in tense situations. So far, the team has worked with 163 students and will work virtually with an additional 80 students this fall. Since the program’s inception, students have reported an improvement in communication levels at school, improved grades, improved relationships with friends and families and better management of their emotions. In fact, 85 percent of students said the program has affected their schooling in a positive way and almost all said it improved their communication with teachers and fellow classmates. In addition to helping with their time in school, Zapolski says the program also helps provide students valuable coping skills that will hopefully help them throughout their lives. But most importantly, she says Going for Goals gives students a sense of community and connectedness at a time when some young people can feel alone.

In addition to creating preventative measures for at-risk students, IU researchers also are helping hundreds of Indiana teens involved in the criminal justice system get screened for substance use issues and referred to treatment through the Improving the Substance Use Care Cascade in the Juvenile Justice System project. Led by Matt Aalsma, professor of pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, the project works with caseworkers and probation departments in Indiana to implement screening for drug use at the time a youth enters the juvenile justice system -- a time when they are most motivated to make a change, according to researchers. Teens who test positive are engaged in evidence-based interventions, and parents and caretakers of the teens are provided with additional resources. So far, the program has helped implement screenings for hundreds of Indiana youth and has trained 55 case managers to help offer referral and treatment options. Initially helping teens in Tippecanoe and Wayne County, the program is now working in eight additional counties thanks to its original success and a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Aalsma says Indiana juvenile courts and communal health systems are at the front line of providing care for youth. His project, he added, helps improve access and utilization of needed substance use treatment for vulnerable youth involved in a complex justice system is helping create closer partnerships between the court and community mental health systems.