Peer Power Drives Alcohol and Substance Abuse Education at U.Va.

February 22, 2012 — It's almost time for spring break, and University of Virginia students are working to help fellow students have a safe one.

During Safe Spring Break Week Feb. 27-March 2, members of ADAPT – the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team – will partner with the all-male "1 in 4" sexual-assault prevention group and Student Health's Peer Health Educators, or PHEs, to promote safe behaviors through educational presentations and a marketing campaign.

ADAPT is providing imprinted cups with educational materials from the three peer-education groups to students who sign a pledge to not drink and drive and look out for their friends while on spring break, which is March 5-9. ADAPT member Christa Poindexter (College of Arts & Sciences2012) observed that "It's really rewarding to help other students think about health issues that they might not have considered. For spring break, not a lot of students think about laws in other countries, bringing enough sunscreen or watching their drinks."

The ADAPT peer-education program is sponsored by the Elson Student Health Center's Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. These students promote awareness, provide educational outreach and serve as accessible resources for fellow students. In addition to the Safe Spring Break campaign, ADAPT sponsors Substance Abuse Awareness Week, Safe Halloween and Safe Foxfield events.

That "power of peer education" pervades the operations of the Gordie Center said Holly Deering, the center's health educator. The Gordie Center boasts a number of programs aimed at educating students about the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse and encouraging safer behaviors.

"Our ultimate goal at the Gordie Center is to create and disseminate evidence-based educational programs and materials to decrease the negative consequences associated with hazardous drinking, illegal drug use and hazing practices among college students," said Deering who co-advises the Student Athlete Mentor, or SAM, program and coordinates the National Collegiate Athletic Association-funded APPLE Conferences. "We believe that these programs play a critical role in the health and wellness of students not only at U.Va., but nationally."

Many of these programs, such as the SAM program, utilize peer-to-peer education. When U.Va. created SAM in 1989, it was the first of its kind in the country and has since been replicated at numerous campuses. This program is designed to train student-athletes to serve as accessible resources for their teammates. SAMs learn to recognize signs of problematic drinking and other health concerns and appropriate ways to intervene.

The 73 SAMs represent every athletics team at U.Va. At their monthly meetings, SAMs meet with administrators and student organizations including the Honor Committee and Student Council and learn about and discuss topics such as nutrition, how to handle stress and the effects of alcohol and other drugs on athletic performance. SAMs then bring this information back to their teams.

Each team has a minimum of two SAM representatives, student-athletes who must have a clear interest in good decision making and taking care of their teammates as well as approval from their coach. Some teams have had as many as eight or 10 representatives. SAMs can apply to serve on a leadership team, this year composed of 10 individuals, which meets one or two additional times per month.

Every athletic team is required to conduct at least one teamwide educational program per semester. In the fall, this program focuses on alcohol and other drug topics. Each spring SAMs conduct the Shootout for Cancer fundraiser for the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. This family-friendly event also provides student- athletes an opportunity to directly connect with and give back to the Charlottesville community. "It's about teaching caring in various dimensions," said Phil Gates, Life Skills director for the Department of Athletics and SAM co-adviser.

For the past several years, SAM, ADAPT and PHE members have been trained in the Step Up! bystander intervention program. U.Va. was a contributing developer of this national program that also serves as the training component of U.Va.'s Let's Get Grounded campaign. Step Up! helps people understand the psychology of why people may not intervene in problem situations and provides skill development to help participants think of small steps they can take to help a person in distress.

Gates said he believes Step Up! is becoming integrated into the lives of student-athletes.

"Stepping up means taking responsibility for yourself and for your friends and saying 'ok we're in this together, we've got to take care of each other.' I see that happening all over the place," Gates said. "It is absolutely deeply felt."

The SAM model is a key program highlighted at the National Athletics Association-funded APPLE conferences. These annual conferences, run by the Gordie Center, are the leading national training symposiums dedicated to substance abuse prevention and health promotion for student-athletes and athletics department administrators. The goal of the APPLE conference, Deering explained, is to assist colleges in promoting student-athlete health and wellness by empowering teams of student-athletes and administrators to create an institution-specific action plan. Since 1992, the NCAA and U.Va. have partnered to disseminate the APPLE model at minimal cost to NCAA-member institutions. To date, 1,214 prevention teams representing 502 NCAA-affiliated institutions – nearly half of all NCAA-member institutions – have replicated the APPLE model by participating in these conferences.

Peer education is a central component of U.Va.’s comprehensive substance abuse prevention plan, which Gordie Center Director Susan Bruce said is based on a national model developed by the Institute of Medicine. Programs are tailored to meet the specific needs of the three prevention populations: universal (all students), targeted (student members of groups with high-risk behaviors, such as fraternities and sororities) and indicated (individuals with demonstrated problems, such as judicial charges).

Bruce said the University utilizes the social norms approach to dispel myths about student drinking behaviors. She explained that a great deal of research indicates people overestimate unhealthy behaviors (such as heavy drinking) and underestimate healthy behaviors (such as eating before drinking or using the buddy system). The public's perceptions of "normal" behavior can be influenced by media images of college parties. People have a natural tendency to notice extreme behaviors, which reinforces these inaccurate perceptions. These misperceptions, Bruce explained, influence our behaviors, particularly for first-year students and new members of organizations who are trying to fit in.

The Elson Student Health Center conducts an annual survey of undergraduate student behaviors that provides normative data for educational efforts including the Stall Street Journal poster series in the first-year residence hall bathroom stalls.

The reality, Bruce explained, is that most U.Va. students drink moderately or not at all. A stratified random sample of approximately 1,500 U.Va. undergraduates in 2010 found that 63 percent of students reported consuming between zero and three drinks on a typical Saturday night.

Bruce said, "When we provide accurate information to students, we increase healthy behaviors."

Over the past 10 years, Student Health has noted an increase in the number of alcohol-related emergency room visits by U.Va. students but the severity of those injuries has decreased, Bruce said. "We see this as a positive trend that may indicate students are more aware of alcohol risks and less fearful of getting help," she said, attributing the increase in part to increased education on the warning signs of alcohol overdose and the University's focus on student safety over purely punitive actions.

The Center for Alcohol and Substance Education changed its name to the Gordie Center in fall 2010 when it merged with the Gordie Foundation, a national nonprofit founded by the parents of Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., who died as a result of an alcohol-related fraternity hazing event at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Since the merger, the center's influence extends to a broader national audience.

– by Kate Colwell