Newswise — Strengthening the Heartland, an SDSU Extension program that provides free seminars to increase awareness and knowledge about opioids among youth and adults in rural South Dakota, will be expanding its programming.

Strengthening the Heartland has delivered opioid-related programming to nearly 35 South Dakota communities in the last two years, according to SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Specialist Amber Letcher, an associate professor in the South Dakota State University Department of Counseling and Human Development.

She and assistant professor Kristine Ramsay-Seaner, clinical experiences coordinator for counseling and human development, coordinate the program, which began in 2018 through funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Ten facilitators, many of whom have mental health and prevention training backgrounds, delivered the “This is not about Drugs” presentation to middle and high schoolers in more than 25 school districts and the adult opioid seminar in nine communities. The program is a joint effort with NDSU Extension, which has its own funding for the project.

Surveys completed before and after the one-hour presentations showed a 17.7% increase in knowledge among youth and a 26.8% increase in knowledge among adults. “This increase is statistically significant for both youth and adults,” Letcher said. 

However, Letcher pointed to a need for “more knowledge and awareness among youth and greater empathy among adults for those suffering from opioid misuse, including ways to encourage their loved ones to seek help.”

Letcher and Ramsey-Seaner will meet those needs through more than $1.4 million in funding—nearly $400,000 from NIFA and more than $1 million from SAMHSA—during the next two years. Four graduate students will also work on the project.

Expanding youth programming

The new programming, Youth Empowerment Days, will be a one-day event with sixth through 12th graders participating in a series of four workshops.

The event opens with the “This is not about Drugs” presentation. During the second session, participants wear opioid and marijuana simulation goggles to experience the physical effects of substance abuse.

In the third session, graduate students lead a group discussion about healthy decision-making. The final session will feature a game focused on ways to turn down an opportunity to use drugs, known as drug resistance skills. 

Rural schools and community organizations, such as boys and girls clubs, can apply to host the event. “Once we know the impact COVID is having in early 2021, we will send out a request for applications,” Letcher said. She anticipates that will happen this spring with the first events scheduled for this summer. 

Because the number of Youth Empowerment Days is limited, Letcher hopes one school or organization can host an event that draws youth from neighboring communities.

Helping loved ones seek treatment

Preliminary results of a survey sent to 1,000 South Dakotans engaged in farming and ranching showed that older respondents, who were the more likely to get prescription opioids, were also less likely to use them. “They did not agree that the side effects were worth the benefit,” Letcher said. This attitude suggests the respondents are getting more information from fear-based campaigns than from those emphasizing responsible opioid use.

“That info led us in a new direction—to reduce the stigma related to those who use prescription opioids and those who struggle with addiction, in general,” Letcher explained. Therefore, for the adult programming, she and Ramsay-Seaner will use community reinforcement and family training, or CRAFT, an evidence-based intervention that teaches families strategies to improve their lives and to encourage their loved ones to get treatment.

“We know rural communities have less access to interventions and this program will help fill that gap,” Letcher said. The 12-week program involves weekly 90-minute virtual sessions that use a support group format. Families can receive up to $100 in compensation depending on how many sessions they complete.

“This model has been very successful in other states,” Ramsey-Seaner said. In December, 10 facilitators were trained to deliver the CRAFT programming, with the goal of having 30 facilitators within two years.

“Most of the people we are training now have their own recruitment base. Once their training is completed, we will see what their plans are and how we can support them,” Ramsey-Seaner said. The goal is to present this program to at least six groups with up to 10 individuals or families in each group during 2021.