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New project targets substance abuse, youth development

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | August 15, 2021 12:00 AM

A new project spearheaded by the Flathead Prevention and Recovery Alliance aims to promote healthy youth development by targeting problem behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco abuse.

The framework for the project, known as "Communities that Care," or CTC, was developed by researchers at the University of Washington and aims to help communities better understand what can be done to protect young people from behavioral and substance abuse problems.

The UW's Center for Communities that Care has helped dozens of communities implement the program. CTC "sites" have been established in Alabama, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Virginia and elsewhere.

Montana joined that list in 2018 after the state health department received a grant from the Montana Healthcare Association to establish CTC sites across the state. A dozen communities, including Bozeman, Browning, Eureka, Libby and Troy, have either started using the framework or plan to begin using it soon.

Flathead County recently received grant funding to hire a CTC coordinator, who is slated to begin working by October, according to an email from substance-abuse prevention specialist Jeff Helpenstill.

MEMBERS OF the Flathead Prevention and Recovery Alliance, which aims to eliminate the stigma surrounding substance abuse and mental illness "by spreading awareness of resources and support in the community through evidence-based approaches of prevention and recovery," have had their eyes on bringing CTC to the valley since the group formed roughly two years ago.

"When we formed the current alliance, we evaluated the resources and all available data. We understood that the community is ready for a program of this magnitude," said Helpenstill, adding that the program was of particular interest because it's "evidence-based and backed by science and research."

The Centers for Communities that Care website highlights some of that research, as well as successes that have stemmed from the program.

One study found that by eighth grade, students from CTC communities were 33% less likely to start smoking cigarettes, 25% less likely to engage in crime and 37% less likely to binge-drink.

That study involved a controlled trial in which 24 towns across seven states were randomly assigned as control communities or as CTC intervention communities. The test group included more than 4,000 students, whom researchers followed closely and surveyed from fifth grade into adulthood.

SEEING THOSE kinds of results locally, however, will take time. According to Helpenstill, it likely will be at least two years before all five phases of the CTC program are complete.

In October, the group will launch into Phase I, which, according to program materials, is devoted to getting key leaders throughout Flathead County to commit to CTC for the long term, and for those leaders to recruit a diverse group of stakeholders that have a vested interest in strengthening youth development throughout the valley.

Helpenstill said the Flathead Prevention and Recovery Alliance hopes to recruit at least 15 people to spearhead the project.

"We are looking to reach all 12 major sectors of our community," Helpenstill said. "The idea is to fill the positions at the table with a diverse education and skill set for the implementation process. These efforts will include all of Flathead County, any community big or small."

Phase II focuses on forming a coalition or community board that will help the group build its vision and develop an appropriate timeline for implementing CTC.

THE THIRD phase will allow Flathead County to home in on its "risks and strengths" surrounding youth development via a widespread youth survey and other community-level data on drug and alcohol abuse, youth crime and more.

The program will look at community risk factors, such as low neighborhood attachment, community laws and norms, family history, academic failures and depressive symptoms, which are associated with the increased likelihood of young people becoming involved in drug use, delinquency, violence and dropping out of school. The program also will examine community resources, such as school counselors, meal support programs, study support systems, strong familial and peer ties, and more.

After data is gathered, CTC coordinators will help local stakeholders identify gaps and execute prevention programs and policies for the area. The final two phases of the program are devoted to measuring the outcomes of those efforts and adjusting accordingly.

The CTC plan is ambitious and will require long-term investment from those involved. But according to Helpenstill, "the desire to see positive outcomes for youth and families in the community" is reason enough to try the program.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.