In this interview, Sarah Dinklage, the Executive Director at Rhode Island Student Assistance Services, discusses the importance of school-based prevention.
Tell me a little about the Rhode Island Student Assistance Services. What does your organization focus on? What is the primary population that you work with?
Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS) is a division of Coastline EAP. We were established in 1987 as a pilot student assistance program based on a SAMHSA evidence-based model in 7 RI high schools. We are now serving 45 schools in 25 districts. Our mission is to provide community and school-based prevention services to youth and reduce substance use among people ages 12 to 18.
Our core service is the Student Assistance Service based on the Project SUCCESS model—an NREPP-listed SAMHSA program with components for all students (universal), those at higher risk than the general population (selected), and those that have a history of substance use (indicated). It is a school-based model meaning that kids have easy, confidential access to specially-trained professional throughout their school day. We also try to make it as adolescent and consumer-friendly as possible.
What types services do your counselors provide to students, teachers, and administrators?
Our student assistance counselors teach a classroom-based prevention education series. It is an eight session curriculum designed to educate kids about substance use and the impact of family addiction. It also provides students with exposure to the student assistance counselor in a non-threatening, non-stigmatizing manner. The student assistance counselors also run schoolwide awareness activities that vary from school to school—including Alcohol Awareness Month, the Great American Smokeout, and Suicide Prevention Week.
Student assistance counselors also provide confidential short-term individual and group counseling services for students on an as-needed or referral basis. Students are welcome to come by to talk about any problems that concern them, whether they are related to substance use or not. It is very important that the program is not stigmatized as the “drug program” as that might inhibit students from seeking help. Students can also refer a friend by letting the counselor know they are worried about someone. Some students are also connected with the student assistance counselor through a ‘mandatory referral’ if they have been caught under the influence at school and face disciplinary action. Counselors then do a comprehensive assessment and use practices like Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), motivational interviewing, and stage of changes to assess for services needed and can refer the student to outpatient or inpatient treatment if it is warranted. Often, if a student needs treatment, the counselor will also meet with parents and family members to provide additional guidance.
Student Assistance Counselors also run a number of different types of support groups for students in their school. There are groups for kids motivated to work on their substance use, groups for those who don’t see it as a problem but are willing to talk about other things, groups for children of drug and alcohol abusing families who are using themselves and groups for children of those families who are not. There are even groups for seniors struggling with life after graduation and groups for newcomers to the school.
In addition, counselors are responsible for community and parent outreach and education. This includes newsletters, editorials, email messages, maintaining listservs, making presentations, conducting workshops, and organizing community forums. We even have some who are talented in social media.
Do you partner with other organizations? What types of collaboration are integral to your work?
We work very closely with public and private treatment providers in the community as well as other social service organizations that help young people. Student assistance counselors must be very knowledgeable about the resources in their community. We also partner very closely with substance abuse community coalitions. Our counselors work on committees and execute a lot of the activities that the coalitions help to fund or are coordinating. For example, if a community coalition wants to have a varsity athletics against substance use club, the student assistance counselor can co-advise that club with help from the coalition.
Our other two important partnerships are with the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH) and with the Department of Health (DOH). BHDDH funds Project SUCCESS and DOH contracts with us to implement a statewide suicide prevention program.
We also really appreciate the support of the school administrators we work with. They understand the importance of community partners, like us, in making sure that kids are sober and ready to learn.
What are your most significant challenges currently?
Our biggest challenges are (1) the changing policies, laws, and climate around marijuana and (2) the increase in heroin use and prescription drug abuse. However, we are seeing an increased interest among schools and our congressional leaders to improve the delivery of substance use prevention in schools.
What prevention-related successes has RISAS had recently?
I am very proud with our 30 year partnership with Rhode Island schools. The fact that we have been able to establish such a long partnership with Rhode Island school districts to implement substance abuse prevention is a big success. And, most recently, I am very proud of our new prevention education series—a new curriculum for us. But I am most proud of the dedication, knowledge, skill and passion of our Student Assistance Counselors, many of whom have been with us for over 15 years – they have positively impacted countless young lives.