A Vernon child and adolescent psychiatrist is encouraging Interior Health to help expand delivery of a substance misuse prevention program to teenagers across the health region.
Dr. David Smith said the program developed by a University of Montreal research team led by Patricia Conrad, called Preventure, has shown positive results in reducing teenage substance misuse in trails carried out in Canada, Netherlands, United Kingdom and the U.S.
Here in the Okanagan, Preventure was adopted at three high schools in Vernon three years ago and has since been included in all five local high schools based on initial positive feedback.
Among other benefits, school counsellors who facilitate Preventure have been able to identify and start building relationships with youth who may be at risk for various mental health and behavioural challenges which are often the gatekeepers to a pathway of drug and alcohol abuse.
“It has not been without a lot of heavylifting and effort as schools are already very busy and by adopting this program those challenges were being added on to, but we continue to see impressive outcomes,” Smith said.
Vernon saw a reduction across the board in alcohol, tobacco and cannabis misuse compared to schools not exposed to the program initially. Preventure research has shown about a 40 per cent decrease among participating students
He said from a financial perspective, research has shown for every $1 invested in the deliver of Preventure, it generate $15 in social program cost savings down the road.
“It is comparable to inoculating our youth from substance misuse in a way that other programs have been unable to match for positive results,” Smith said.
He said that was encouraging given that the Southern Interior is second only to the Northern Interior in B.C. for youth substance misuse, ahead of both the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
From a national perspective, Canada registers among the highest cannabis and prescription opiate misuse among youth, he added.
“I am not trying to sound catastrophic or use scare tactics, but on the other hand you have to be realistic about the extent of the substance misuse among our youth. You can’t’ fix the problem if you don’t acknowledge it,” Smith said.
Smith and others helped introduce the program three years ago to Grade 8 students in three Vernon high schools, that grade chosen because it is an age when teenagers show a high proclivity for engaging in substance misuse.
All Grade 8 students are screened though a question and answer survey for four personality traits commonly associated with 90 per cent of teenage substance abusers—sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness.
Students exposed by the screening to those personality traits are then anonymously invited to participate in the Preventure workshops, which entail two group sessions of 90 minutes each delivered by trained facilitators in the schools, both teachers and counsellors, typically one week apart.
Smith described the process of moving upstream to engage students before they get into substance misuse issues, taking a proactive viewpoint of helping students learn about their own personality characteristics and how they can serve as a positive influence to find success in life.
“The workshops help participants to learn personality-specific coping strategies and behaviours. The substance misuse aspect is actually a small part of the program presentation,” Smith said.
He called the upstream approach a quantum leap forward in the evolution of substance misuse prevention programs, saying other predecessors such as the Just Say No campaign launched by Nancy Reagan and Scared Straight were well meaning but not ultimately effective particularly in reaching high risk children.
“Where (Preventure) is significantly different is it goes back to the basics, identifying the traits of those at potential risk to substance misuse and help those individuals before it becomes a problem,” Smith said.
IH board chair Doug Cochrane called teenage substance misuse “an extraordinary important social problem” while other board directors questioned how the provincial ministries of education and health could work together to be more effective in developing the infrastructure of funding and resources to deliver these programs rather than working in isolation of one another.
Smith said there are indications that process is improving while complementing Interior Health in taking a collaborative approach to find ways with other partners and government agencies to reverse the substance misuse statistics within the health region.
He suggested the training burden for high school teachers and counsellors to take the three-day Preventure facilitator training workshop and followup three hours of supervised practice running student group sessions could also involve public health staff, university graduate students or Grade 12 students to help keep the program resource sustainable.