The success of individuals and organizations working to prevent drug and alcohol use in the teen and young adult population hinges upon having access to science-based statistics that reveal current trends. All too often, however, misinformation and misconceptions cloud the landscape and hamper attempts to achieve effective change.
In an effort to give community coalitions the best chance to reach their goals of reducing drug, alcohol and tobacco use among middle school, high school and college students, the NYS Office of Addiction Supports and Services have placed six “prevention resource centers” around the state.
One of those centers is the Western New York Prevention Resource Center and its office is located at the Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse’s main campus at 430 E. Main St. in Batavia.
The WNY PRC, under the direction of Sharon Koenig since 2013, assists community coalitions in the eight counties of Western New York (Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Niagara and Erie), providing technical trainings and workshops, pertinent literature and the expertise of a Community Development Specialist.
Her staff includes Dawn Sagerman, senior community development specialist, and Sharon O’Neil, community development specialist assistant.
“We work with stakeholders in the development of new coalitions and support established community coalitions, with a focus on the Strategic Prevention Framework – a public health, outcome-based prevention approach,” Koenig said. “The SPF is a five-step, dynamic, data-driven approach that helps coalitions move toward the goal of reducing substance abuse, risky behaviors and consequences in their communities.”
Seven Points to Success
Koenig outlined the SPF’s seven areas that are fundamental to setting a coalition’s strategy:
- Assessment: Collection of data to decide on the most pressing issue that can be successfully addressed with available resources, with three key components – identifying and understanding the population’s needs, determining necessary resources and assessing whether the community is ready to tackle the issue.
- Capacity: Building the coalition (people, available finances, organizational chart) to carry out the plan to reduce substance use, including training and technical assistance provided by the PRC.
- Planning: Developing a strategy (logic model) aimed at meeting community needs and creating community-level change.
- Implementation: Putting the plan, strategies, programs, policies and practices into action.
- Evaluation: Efforts are evaluated in terms of process, impact and outcome, with the results used to make ongoing adjustments and improvements.
The SPF has a pair of key concepts at its center and both must be incorporated into every step:
- Cultural Competence: Behaviors, attitudes and policies that enable coalitions to make a difference in culturally diverse environments;
- Coalition Sustainability: The capacity to keep the coalition going long enough to achieve its long-term goals.
Fueled By Scientific Data
Koenig said that while prevention providers (such as GCASA) primarily focus on change at the individual level, the WNYPRC in conjunction with community coalitions concentrates on environmental or broad-based strategies that can impact a large number of people.
“The PRC strives for policy change and reduction in the percentages of those using drugs, alcohol and tobacco based on scientific data,” she said. “Without the data, it’s just another person’s opinion.”
Another part of the PRC’s mission – one that is in the forefront of late – is managing and dispelling those opinions and misperceptions that can trigger strategies that fail to hit their intended targets.
Earlier this month, the WNYPRC sponsored a full-day training in Hamburg that centered upon using a social norms approach to successfully reducing youth risk behaviors.
About 50 people representing community coalitions, substance abuse prevention agencies, law enforcement, schools and the National Guard (a partner with the PRCs around the state) attended the presentation by H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.
Perkins is a leader in the “social norms approach” field, having conducted surveys of tens of thousands of college, high school and middle school students over the past two decades to evaluate how perceptions of drug and alcohol use compare to the reality of the same.
“Students misperceive their peers pretty badly,” said Perkins, backing up his claim with survey data that shows that students perceive that their peers are engaging in risky behavior much more than what the actual numbers show.
Not Everyone is Doing It
The numbers from a 1996 study of 5,000 students at a New York college show that the perception was that 89 percent of students drank alcohol twice a month and that 25 percent drank daily. The actual numbers revealed that 60 percent drank alcohol twice a month and that only 5 percent drank daily.
Similar outcomes were obtained when it came to marijuana use, hallucinogens and cocaine, said Perkins, who went on to provide several more examples of surveys that produced the same degree of misperception.
“The same phenomena occur time and time again,” he said. “For example, a survey showed that 25 to 30 percent engage in bullying. The perception is that it is 70 percent or more.”
Perkins said that a “naïve” response to the data would be that the problem isn’t that significant, but that misses the point. Rather, the best response, he said, is to devise strategies, such as traditional and social media campaigns, that reflect the reality of the situation.
“The causes of these misperceptions are psychological … we’re more accurate about our own situation than others’; social psychological … much of our conversation is focused on the extreme; and cultural … as entertainment, advertising, news and health advocacy media focus on the bad behavior of a small percentage,” he said.
Truth or Consequences
Perkins said the consequences of these misperceptions include a “reign of error” that controls our behavior, use and abuse increases if young people think it is expected of them, those in opposition to risky behavior are discourage from speaking out and intervention by others declines.
“The carriers of misperception contribute to the problem,” he said. “It is contagious.”
The most effective social norms model leads to a healthy dose of reality, Perkins said, and it incorporates identifying the actual vs. the misperceived, intervention, less exaggerated misperceptions and a focus on the “healthy majority.”
“Print media campaigns need to accentuate the actual norms – most aren’t engaging in the risky behavior – and then there needs to be peer education program and workshops for the targeted risk groups,” he said. “Beyond that, new student orientation presentations, counseling interventions, curriculum infusion and electronic multimedia are effective.”
Perkins and his colleagues have put his theory to the test, with encouraging positive results, he said.
In the first 18 months of one campaign, advancing positive messages such as “70 percent of us (students) don’t drink,” Perkins said surveys showed that: frequent heavy drinking dropped by 21 percent; property damage decreased by 36 percent; those missing class went down by 31 percent; unprotected sex decreased by 40 percent; and inefficient work fell by 25 percent.
Applying This to WNY
The professor said that these social norm techniques can be applied at various levels of education and to groups outside of the school settings, explaining that subsequent campaigns and surveys showed similar outcomes at several colleges and “across varied demographic profiles.”
“Social norms are most effective when there are clear, positive norm messages, credible data, the absence of competing scare messages, a high dosage of message, multiple strategies and a broad student population,” Perkins said.
Koenig said this is important to the mission of the WNYPRC, which can use the information from Perkins’ presentation to help move the needle in areas of concern for local coalitions.
“The fact that Dr. Perkins stressed getting good data, specific to the intended target audience, meshes well with the objectives of the PRC,” she said. “Obtaining a representative sample size and conducting surveys on a regular basis, and specifying frequency of use, quantity consumed, the context of consumption, the negative consequences and the protective behaviors are factors that we can address.”
To learn more about social norms, go to alcoholeducationproject.org or youthhealthsafety.org.
More information about the WNY PRC can be obtained here, or by sending an email to Koenig at [email protected].
Photo at top: WNY Prevention Resource Center staff, from left, Sharon O'Neil, Sharon Koenig and Dawn Sagerman, with Prof. H. Wesley Perkins.
Disclosure: Story written by Mike Pettinella, GCASA publicist.