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Researchers implement opioid misuse intervention in three rural Utah counties

Two people stand in front of a poster with the headline, "Helping Youth & Families PROSPER in Utah."
Max McDermott
Claire Warnick (Left) and Stacey MacArthur (Right), with a poster presentation of their work, at the International Narcotics Research Conference in Valencia, Spain.

USU Professor Stacey MacArthur, of the Youth Program’s Department, and program coordinator, Claire Warnick, are implementing a universal prevention program, called PROSPER, in Emery, Wayne and San Juan County schools.

According to MacArthur, PROSPER is an evidence-based approach for the prevention of a wide-range of negative outcomes, including opioid misuse. At the bustling International Narcotics Research Conference (INRC) in Valencia, Spain, MacArthur explained why this work matters in Utah.

“So we're a pretty healthy state, except for when it comes to things like opioid misuse. So we have a pretty high opioid misuse issue, and a suicide issue, as we know. And so we thought that we would address that,” MacArthur said.

The PROSPER intervention was delivered to two-hundred 6th graders. The program consists of two components: the 17-week LifeSkills Training program, delivered in the classroom, and the 7-week Strengthening Families component, which took place in the evening for parents and students. Warnick says the Lifeskills program teaches youth to discern reliable messages about drugs and alcohol and the often-unreliable messages seen in popular media.

“So some of it is breaking down misconceptions that they might already have, or messages that they may have gotten from unreliable sources. But we also have lessons on things like self-confidence, and how to say no to someone if you're uncomfortable,” Warnick said.

Warnick said the Strengthening Families component focuses on facilitating communication between parents and students, and emphasizes the unique values of each family unit.

“There are lessons about drug and alcohol use, but there's an understanding that families might have different expectations for that, like some parents will have alcohol at home and some won't. So it's not, 'This is what every family should do,' but it's, 'This is how you can talk to your kids about your family, and your approach to these issues,'" Warnick said.

According to Warnick, post-intervention survey results for the LifeSkills program are promising. Students report increased confidence in resisting peer pressure. Warnick says the cohorts in the Strengthening Families group are too small to draw conclusions from yet, but preliminary results show that parents report increased communication and one-on-one time with their teen. And that both parents and student’s report increased awareness of one another’s perspective. MacArthur says this increases family cohesiveness.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.