Despite the growing opioid and teen vaping epidemics during the past decade, in southern Kennebec County substance use by middle- and high-school students declined in all categories — alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and prescription drugs — thanks to community members and organizations working together.

Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, or HCCA, is a nonprofit coalition of local people working to improve health and the quality of life in southern Kennebec County. For the past decade, our group has received federal funding from the Drug Free Communities program and has worked to strengthen collaboration among community members and organizations to reduce youth substance use.

The philosophy behind the Drug Free Communities program is that local alcohol and drug problems require local solutions. Therefore, funding goes to support community-based coalitions that organize to promote healthy choices and prevent youth substance use. The community-based coalitions have a formal arrangement for cooperation and collaboration among community sectors, including business, government, health care, law enforcement, parents, youth and youth-serving organizations, and others. Groups retain their identities, but agree to work together toward the common goal of building a safe, healthy and drug-free community.

Over the past decade, Healthy Communities of the Capital Area has served as the anchor organization for the effort, successfully building two coalitions with widespread community membership and fostering collaborative efforts with community partners to create programs that focus on concepts linked to preventing substance abuse. These include increasing perceptions of risk and harm, parental disapproval, and peer disapproval, and, of course, reducing the rate of substance use. The coalitions, the Southern Kennebec Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (since 2009) and Gardiner Thrives (more recently), have undertaken countless prevention activities, including, but not limited to:

• Supporting various youth groups in local schools to engage in empowerment and awareness activities;

• Implementing “Prime for Life,” a 12-hour, evidence-based program for youth and young adults who have been caught using alcohol and other drugs; and

• Promoting and supporting prescription drug take-back events and instituting “every day” take-back boxes at law enforcement agencies.

Our efforts have increased collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders, and unified the approach to addressing substance use. Coalition members use clear, consistent language and state a common commitment to the issues. Collaboration occurs across sectors, and Healthy Communities of the Capital Area is at the forefront of promoting this collaborative approach to substance use prevention in the community. In addition, a key success has been building the community’s capacity to respond to emerging and urgent needs, ranging from providing information, to advocacy, to offering training and other support.

The shifts in youth attitudes and perceptions about substance use, which were the strategic focus of many of HCCA’s efforts over the years, in conjunction with the decrease in actual use, provide strong evidence that the coalition’s focus on youth use appears to be having the intended effects.

Based on data from 2009 and 2017 (the most recent year available) drawn from Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, conducted every two years by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of middle school students who have used a particular substance in the past 30 days has fallen for alcohol (12.3% to 4.6%), cigarettes (7.5% to 1.9%), marijuana (8.6% to 4.6%) and prescription drugs (6.5% to 1.7%).

The same is true for high school students, with past 30-day use rates falling for alcohol (30.8% to 21.9%), cigarettes (17.8% to 9.5%), marijuana (23.7% to 19.1%) and prescription drugs (9.8% to 5.1%).

Congratulations to these communities and Healthy Communities of the Capital Area. Prevention works, and addressing youth substance use does take a community. With strong facilitation and leadership, cross-sector cooperation and community dedication, youth substance use can be reduced.

Pat Hart is the mayor of Gardiner and a member of the Healthy Communities of the Capital Area board of directors.

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