September 2016 Issue
September 29, 2016

Helping students choose before they use

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
UUP members Dolores Cimini and Estela Rivero guide the STEPS program at UAlbany to help students make better choices. For more info, visit Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: From left, UUP members Dolores Cimini and Estela Rivero guide the STEPS program at UAlbany to help students make better choices. For more info, visit Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

The blizzard of drug and alcohol abuse affecting many young adults is being countered by a storm of new ideas by NYSUT members for training, intervention and social media campaigns.

University at Albany psychologist Dolores Cimini is garnering national and state grants to implement new styles of interventions, including a program to educate students before they develop a problem. "Higher education has gotten off the radar as a behavioral health funding priority on a statewide and national scale," said Cimini, a member of United University Professions, a NYSUT higher education affiliate. This is a concern, she said, because "young adults are at the highest risk for substance abuse and mental health concerns."

Cimini's two active grants, one from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the other from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, allow her to work with two major universities to develop interventions and to address stimulant use among college students. She travels across the country with her service dog, Savannah, to provide seminars about alcohol and marijuana use and non-medical use of prescription drugs. She also shares 10 years of data from UAlbany's Counseling and Psychological Services.

As director of the Middle Earth Peer Counseling Center, Cimini recently oversaw training for 140 student counselors about the use of Narcan, an opiate antidote that blocks the effects of drugs such as heroin.

"The potential for overdose from heroin and other classes of opioids is high," said Estela Rivero, director of UAlbany's University Counseling Center and a UUP member. Heroin, Cimini added, is "a quick killer."

"Students are coming into college with increasingly complex issues," Cimini said. Those who abuse stimulants, for example, may take prescriptions that belong to someone else or may trade or even steal medications from others. Eighty percent of heroin abuse starts with use of narcotic pain medication, according to the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

Cimini and Rivero developed the STEPS program, which calls on campus psychologists to speak to student groups such as athletes, sorority and fraternity groups and people coming into the health centers.

"We go out to them and meet them where they're at," said Cimini.

Students are presented with brief interventions that offer practical information and tips for reducing risk of drug use.

Although alcohol use is on the increase nationwide, the Northeast generally has the highest ranking for alcohol use, said Cimini. As part of the STEPS program, conversations with student-athletes focus on how alcohol use is linked to dehydration and poor performance; how it affects speed, power and muscle strength even 72 hours after use; and how it affects coordination.

"We give students the tools to decide," Cimini said. "We talk about work goals, family goals ... about decisions they've made and regretted." Students answer screening questions anonymously from a computer room, and might be invited to be part of a study.

STEPS also examines marijuana use, non-medical use of prescription drugs such as stimulants, medication for anxiety and sleep, or narcotics for pain. Information shared at the interventions and in UAlbany's social media campaigns dissect the belief that college is a place to party. "Beliefs influence behavior," said Cimini.

Rivero said alcohol abuse especially puts college students in high-risk situations. "It is the real date-rape drug," she said, noting that there's an 80 percent correlation between alcohol and sexual assault.

Get the facts

● Heroin overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in NYS.
● Approximately 1.4 million New Yorkers suffer from a substance use disorder.
● Between 2005–14, upstate New York saw a 222 percent increase in admissions of patients aged 18–24 to certified treatment programs for heroin and other opioids.
● In NYS, nearly 11 million opioid analgesic prescriptions were dispensed in 2014, enough for about 70 percent of New Yorkers older than 18 to have a bottle of pills in their medicine cabinet.
● A 2012 survey by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that nearly nine out of 10 high school students reported that classmates are drugging, drinking or smoking during the school day.