January 17, 2024, Durham, NC – The federal government and medical facilities across the United States have made substantial efforts to impede growth of the national opioid crisis, but trends in substance use have evolved in recent years making it increasingly difficult to thwart the addiction crisis. Updates on the decades-long opioid epidemic and prevention efforts have consistently made headlines as millions of Americans have faced opioid use disorders in the last three years. However, as rates of cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl use continue to climb, it is vital to spread awareness of the pervasiveness of polysubstance use, in addition to opioid use, in communities across the United States. Recent data has shown that 70-80% of people who are addicted to opioids also use other illicit substances. Between May of 2022 and May of 2023, over 34,000 deaths were attributed to methamphetamine and 28,000 were attributed to cocaine.

Polysubstance use is a slippery slope, and people who use multiple substances often do so unintentionally. Many receive substances that have been laced with other drugs without their knowledge, resulting in complex, unpredictable polysubstance use disorders that are difficult to treat. In addition, people who are pregnant have fewer treatment options to aid their recovery from substance misuse, and national prescription drug shortages (e.g., Adderall, a stimulant medication sometimes prescribed to curb urges for methamphetamine) affect patients’ abilities to receive treatment for substance misuse.

Not only can substance misuse be challenging to treat, but it may also be difficult to identify. A common misconception surrounding substance misuse is that it is always concurrent with homelessness and/or unemployment. Many individuals facing substance use disorders have shelter and are employed, and this misconception may cause their struggles with substance misuse to go unnoticed. Also, these individuals may not seek help or medical treatment because of the stigmas surrounding substance use disorders, indicating that substance misuse affects more people than we are aware of. Left untreated, substance use disorders can have significant negative impacts on families and often coexist with mental health disorders. Altogether, the challenges to treating, identifying, and combating the negative impacts of substance misuse highlight the importance of prevention efforts to stop substance misuse early and the need for resources to support individuals and families impacted by substance misuse.

iRT has developed several cutting-edge substance use prevention programs designed to delay or prevent onset of substance use, and support asset-building to provide children, teens, and adults with the skills they need to live a sober and healthy life. Our research and programs address substance misuse prevention through five complementary, evidence-based approaches including: media literacy education, mindfulness education, social-emotional learning interventions, mentoring, and impaired driving education.

Media Literacy Education for Substance Use Prevention

From early childhood, youth are bombarded with media messages about substance use. These messages are often unrealistic, inaccurate, and have negative impacts on youth’s decisions and beliefs about substance use. Media literacy education-based substance use prevention is designed to help youth reject inaccurate messages by helping them build skills to critically analyze media. Media literacy education subverts the influence of unhealthy media messages by helping youth become more skeptical of the ideas behind media messages, rather than taking them at face value. iRT’s media literacy education-based substance use prevention programs include:

Mindfulness Education for Substance Use Prevention

Children’s self-regulatory abilities develop over time, and the ability to successfully regulate one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors has been associated with positive social and academic outcomes. Difficulties with self-regulation may put children and adolescents at risk for engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as the use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. iRT has developed mindfulness education prevention programs designed to facilitate the growth of self-regulatory abilities in children and adolescents with the ultimate goal of mediating stressors associated with substance misuse. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis can help children and adolescents slow down, become more aware of their feelings or thoughts, and manage them in healthy ways when they are at home, in school, or with others. iRT’s mindfulness education substance use prevention programs include:

Social-Emotional Learning for Substance Use Prevention

The skills of selecting, making, and keeping prosocial friends, and reducing or eliminating affiliation with deviant peers, are core to preventing substance use behaviors in children and adolescents. In fact, conclusions from developmental theory, empirical longitudinal studies, and prevention trials concur that social influences are a primary factor in the initiation of drug using and misusing behaviors. Similarly, risky health behaviors such as aggression, delinquency, and substance use are highly positively intercorrelated. iRT has developed social-emotional learning programs designed to help youth build self-regulatory skills (e.g., behavioral inhibition, anger management), social cognitive skills (e.g., interpersonal problem solving), prosocial skills (e.g., sharing, empathy), and engagement in prosocial leisure activities, so they may be protected against the development of impaired social relationships, aggression, and substance use. Some of iRT’s social-emotional learning substance use prevention programs include:

  • Buddy Builder: In-person, instructor-led, activity-based program for elementary school students in afterschool settings
  • Fight Navigator: In-person, instructor-led workshop designed to help adolescents navigate threatening situations

Mentoring for Substance Use Prevention

Mentoring typically involves an adult or a more experienced peer (the mentor) who is engaged in a non-professional helping relationship with a young person or less experienced peer (the mentee). The goals of mentors in a mentoring relationship can include establishing a long-term, trusted friendship, helping the mentee explore their interests or goals, advocating on behalf of the mentee, or supporting a mentee impacted by substance misuse. When mentoring relationships end prematurely, mentees are at risk for various negative outcomes, including increased alcohol consumption. iRT has developed training for mentors, staff, mentees, and parents/guardians to support the development of long-lasting, effective mentoring relationships and support mentees who are affected by substance misuse. Some of iRT’s mentoring training programs include:

Substance-Impaired Driving Prevention

Existing driver education and substance misuse prevention programs do not directly address the underlying knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to prevent impaired driving. To compound the problem, regulations for driver education vary from state to state. In fact, only 6 states require a drug and alcohol awareness course for drivers under age 18 as a requirement of obtaining a license. To address these gaps, iRT has developed and evaluated a prevention program for teens and young adults to prevent different types of impaired and distracted driving. In addition, we have created a set of web-based prevention resources to support the implementation of environmental prevention strategies designed for community-based prevention professionals (e.g., community coalitions, substance misuse treatment and highway safety professionals) seeking to reduce and prevent drug-impaired driving. iRT’s substance-impaired driving prevention programs include:

  • Plan My Ride: Web-based, interactive program designed to teach new drivers strategies to avoid impaired and distracted driving
  • Drugged Driving Essentials: Web-based, interactive program for general audiences that teaches learners about the problem of drug-impaired driving as a legal, safety, and public health issue
  • Strategic Skills for the Prevention of Drugged Driving: Web-based, interactive program designed to teach prevention professionals how to plan a drugged driving intervention in a data-driven way