Collegiate Network Aims to Reduce Substance Misuse on Arkansas Campuses

Collegiate Network Aims to Reduce Substance Misuse on Arkansas Campuses

By Darla J. Kelsay, Certified Prevention Consultant

Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator, MidSOUTH Center for Prevention & Training

 

The Arkansas Collegiate Network (ACN), Arkansas’ official collegiate coalition, has a higher vision than just local community impact; the network is committed to addressing substance misuse statewide. As a community coalition, ACN understands the importance of working together to create change. They understand that building strong collaborations and partnerships is critical to implementing effective substance misuse prevention programs.

Twenty-two institutions of higher education are currently core members of ACN, according to Collegiate Prevention Coordinator Cody Conway with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Office of substance Abuse and Mental Health (OSAMH). Conway’s agency spearheads ACN and provides technical assistance, professional development opportunities, and a virtual monthly platform for ACN members to learn about prevention-related topics and resources and share planned campus prevention activities.

“I am tremendously proud of the way our group has coalesced this year to take supportive actions on behalf of this state’s students. It is truly amazing to see the creativity, passion, and drive of our representatives. My favorite part of my job is seeing schools connect with one another to share creative solutions to big problems. Over the past year, I have seen them build inter-campus partnerships, empower student-led initiatives, and gracefully execute many health promotion initiatives at our schools. I feel extremely lucky to have such great working relationships with this talented group.”

Data collected from surveys like the Arkansas Collegiate Substance Use Assessment (ACSUA) and other sources show that college students, who are often living on their own for the first time, are at higher risk for drug experimentation. Four main reasons college campuses are considered fertile grounds for substance use are ease of drug availability, lack of parental influence, normalization of drug use among peers, and low perceived risk of harm from drug use.

Tackling risk factors affecting the collegiate population is not always on the radar of those working in the prevention field, however. Their focus may lean more toward primary prevention and delaying first substance use of elementary youth and teens. To help address this population gap, the Department of Human Services formulated the idea of the ACN, encouraging participating schools to become educated on and utilize SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF) to help steer prevention activities on their campuses. The SPF outlines a process for organizations to prevent and reduce the use and abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

ACN recruitment efforts began in 2018 with Trevor Villines, a recent graduate from the University of Arkansas then working at the state level, making face-to-face visits with collegiate faculty and student affairs staff to promote the statewide initiative and its importance to the wellbeing of students, whose voices are a priority in campus prevention planning. Building coalition capacity has been an ongoing effort, with the usual challenges most coalitions face – lack of commitment to the mission, key stakeholder turnover, and unique to the ACN network – students’ inevitable graduation.

Dr. Stephanie Rose, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Sciences, and the Program Director of the Addiction Studies Program at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), has been a big supporter and advocate of the ACN. She and her prevention partners at UCA were the first to host the state’s biannual Save AR Students event on their campus.

Save AR Students is an awareness campaign directed toward education and the prevention of substance misuse throughout public institutions of higher education in the State of Arkansas. Since its inception in 2018, the event has traditionally taken place on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol, where state officials and others spoke on opioid abuse and overdose. When it was determined this past fall that students would better receive the campaign if it were held on campuses to meet students where they are, UCA was delighted to host it.

“The University of Central Arkansas created a campaign called #BearTruth, named after the university mascot. Findings in the Arkansas Collegiate Substance Use Assessment indicated that most respondents overestimated their peers’ substance use. While 90% of respondents reported having awareness of substance use policies on campus and 88% reported awareness of campus prevention polices and activities, 75% of respondents reported not being involved with these policies or programs,” explained Dr. Rose. “The #BearTruth campaign sought to improve these outcomes and better connect students to existing policies and programs.”

ACN members have received state funds as available to help host prevention efforts on their campuses, with the goal of increasing students’ awareness of the health consequences of substance misuse. Campus prevention activities across the state are unique to each school and have included social norming campaigns, opioid education and overdose risks, naloxone training, and activities focused on alcohol misuse, marijuana use, vaping, tobacco use, and the dangers of fentanyl.

“I think that the ACN has been instrumental in providing support, guidance, and funding to provide events that can assist to connect students to services that are on campus. The ACN assists colleges to use the Strategic Prevention Framework by fostering protective factors amongst the developmental cascade including fostering healthy coping skills and participating in activities such as alcohol and drug free events (DEA, 2024),” stated Dr. Rose. “Because of these networking opportunities, the Addiction Studies Program at the University of Central Arkansas will also be mentoring other ACN schools to host similar events and programs.”

On April 22, the Arkansas Collegiate Network will hold a press conference at the state capitol to kick off the spring Save AR Students event. ACN schools will hold prevention activities throughout the week, ending with statewide Drug Take Back events on April 27.

“Our group is the strongest it’s ever been, and we are growing every month. Our members say they are proud to be part of the work we do, and this makes me so happy. Next year, we will be rolling out an exciting new ACN Student Ambassador program, equipping students with tools and resources to take action and make a difference at their schools. I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together from the foundation we’ve worked so hard to build.”
To learn more about the Arkansas Collegiate Network go to ar.gov/ACN.

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