Big city drug prevention program targets Spencer, Iowa, population 13,000

Big city drug prevention program targets Spencer, Iowa, population 13,000

March 13, 2000

In response to the growing rate of drug abuse in America's rural communities, 12 University of Chicago medical students will immerse themselves in the tiny town of Spencer, Iowa, for four days, bringing with them healthy and diseased human organs to give kids an inside look at what drugs can do to the body. The medical students are part of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine's Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) program.

The ASAP program uses a scientific approach to educate fifth through eigth grade students about the effects of drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine by having the children compare and contrast normal and drug-damaged human hearts, lungs, livers and brains. The program, which uses three separate school visits to deliver its drug prevention message, also introduces strategies kids can use to fight peer pressure and build resistance skills to drug use.

The aim of the visit, which takes place March 19-23, 2000, is to inspire new and innovative drug prevention strategies within small towns by bringing the resources of a nationally acclaimed substance abuse prevention program to the community. At the same time, the medical students hope to gain a better understanding of the health problems that face rural America so that they can tailor future health interventions to similar communities.

During their tour of duty in Spencer, the Pritzker medical students take part in all aspects of rural life. They will visit local schools to deliver their program, attend youth group meetings for career counseling, work with local nurses and health professionals to build community partnerships, and live with local families to gain exposure to life within the rural community.

During the visit, the ASAP students will train a handful of high school students as "teacher's aides" to help bring the ASAP program to local sixth graders. "We will be getting the ASAP message out to every single sixth grader in Spencer," says Eric Berkson, a University of Chicago Pritzker medical student.

The visit was organized in part by Jody Stoner, a second year University of Chicago Pritzker medical student and past AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer at the Family Resource Center in Spencer where she coordinated tutoring and student mentoring programs.

"Drug use is not just an urban problem," says Stoner, an Iowa native herself. "It is important for us to realize that youth everywhere face the same pressures and choices when it comes to drug use," Stoner explains.

Substance abuse by rural youth has recently been recognized as a growing problem. A 1999 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found that eighth-graders in rural America are 104 percent more likely than those in urban areas to use amphetamines, including methamphetamines, and 50 percent more likely to use cocaine. Furthermore, they are more than twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and nearly five times more likely to use smokeless tobacco products than those teens living in large urban areas.

"Although ASAP was designed for use in urban Chicago, because ASAP is based on science, it sends a universal message that can be applied to youth from all backgrounds," says Berkson. "Any kid can understand the health implications of a real blackened lung of a smoker."

"This is a truly wonderful program," says Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Bennett L. Leventhal, MD, at the University of Chicago and the group's faculty advisor. ASAP has caught on nationally, he says, for several reasons. "The material is thoughtfully organized, specific and clear, yet not overly judgmental, which makes it believable for children and adolescents. The presentation is appropriately paced and exceedingly graphic. And the presenters are knowledgeable and sincere yet committed and approachable, close enough in age--and attire--to relate well to middle school students. For this reason, ASAP has been warmly embraced by teachers and students across the nation."

Currently, the ASAP program has reached more than 5,000 children in the Chicago area and is now active at more than 15 medical centers across the United States. The program was the 1998 recipient of the United States Department of Health and Human Services Exemplary Prevention Program Award.