So much about our world has changed in the last four months. Complete upending of the way many of us deliver programs and services and great uncertainty about the availability of financial and other resources makes it hard to know what to do first, or next, or without interruption. With fewer people available to serve our students, and many people taking on duties outside of their formal training or experience, what are the most important prevention actions we must continue to take?
Commitment from Leadership
One thing that has not changed is that successful prevention efforts start with a commitment from leadership. Senior level messaging should clearly state that prevention represents an investment in positive academic outcomes and mental health. We have years of research showing the effect of substance use on graduation and retention, and on the related benefits of prevention. Our students need us now more than ever.
While our current reality includes a sudden, stark reduction in resources at many campuses, prevention work is iterative, continual, and multi-faceted. It must remain a priority because when we pause or stop doing it, we lose ground. And while the importance of regular prevention efforts cannot be overstated, we must also require ourselves to do more than one thing related to prevention. We know from the NIAAA and College AIM that a mix of strategies is best. Now is a great time to go back to College AIM (especially with the update at the start of 2020!) and look for a mix of options to address high-risk alcohol use, including lower relative cost when needed.
Know Your Data
As roles change, we must ensure that practitioners inherently understand that we are not preventing substance use just to see drinking rates go down. This work is about minimizing unwanted consequences, including challenges to academic success, professional opportunities, and relationships that can be associated with high-risk alcohol use. Effective prevention depends on understanding what is happening on campus and in the state and broader region, which is why knowing what your data tell you is so important to this work. Practitioners should have a good sense of campus trends, behaviors, norms, and perceptions.
Address Multiple Audiences
Our current distanced environment takes us out of place-based intervention and highlights the need to think at the about our multiple audiences for prevention. Some prevention efforts target the whole campus, with the hope of delaying the initiation of use, maintaining abstinence, or reducing use that may be taking place. Some efforts are offered with high-risk or at-risk students in mind, including programs offered to mandated students. However, we must remember to balance reactive measures with preventive and proactive strategies, and we must address multiple audiences for prevention, including efforts to prevent relapses, and to keep abstainers abstaining.
There is good news for people just starting assignments in prevention. We know a lot about what works! There is no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel. We have good prevention science and there are many digestible prevention resources out there. The NCAA and NASPA collaborative program, 360 Proof, can point you to these, and we recommend visiting the College AIM resource page. Also, prevention is very collaborative. People are there for each other, and good things happen when we talk to each other. Consider reaching out to AOD professionals at other schools or joining the 360 Proof Learning Collaborative.
It is so easy to focus on the great challenges we face, but all of this change in our lives also presents opportunity. This is a perfect time to change habits as our environmental prompts have us reflecting on behavior like never before. More people than ever have public health in the front of their mind on a daily basis, aligning around shared frameworks and common goals. College itself will look different this fall. With less student density and fewer events, we have an opportunity to shape student norms and reset the priorities and perceptions of the college experience. We are seeing innovation and newfound efficiencies as we all work towards new and better ways to reach students. And we have a great opportunity to increase positive bystander interventions brought on by our new habits of asking each other to wear masks, wash hands, and keep distance.
Share Your Public Health Expertise!
Finally, if you are prevention professional now facing other duties, you have a great skill set to share! COVID-19 prevention is about behavior choices, and you are a specialist in harm reductive messaging. Public health expertise will be a critical component to successfully managing the pandemic, and not losing sight of general student health along the way. Prevention specialists, because of their skillsets around behavior change and effective health communication, are among our most essential employees.