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UMass receives national award for efforts to prevent substance abuse

The University of Massachusetts has received a 2009 Science and Service Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for their efforts in educating students about substance abuse and binge drinking.     

The Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) is one of only four college programs nationally awarded for their substance-abuse assistance.  Last year, BASICS received a federal grant of $200,000 as part of a U.S. Department of Education model program competition.  This year, UMass has decided to fund the program due to its success as “a model program”. 

Center for Alcohol and other Drug Abuse Prevention (CADAP) Director, Sally Linowski, says it is “really an honor to receive the Science and Service Award.”  The award not only recognizes the BASICS program as exemplary, but lauds both staff and students who help the program to reach its goals. 

 “Our commitment is to provide the most efficient and effective program for our students,” Linowski said.     

This theory-based program, according to Linowski, focuses on a “harm reduction” philosophy.  It is the opposite of the “just-say-‘no’” approach in that it takes students who have already said ‘yes’ and works with them to reduce their intake of drugs and alcohol.  The program takes in 1,200 students a year. According to Linowski, the majority of students they take had been mandated to partake in the program due to rule-breaking substance abuse.  The program’s popularity is growing though because those mandated through the program suggest it to their friends.  

Linowski reports that the BASICS program has a high success rate in reducing high-risk drinking.  Through the evaluation program, staff is able to follow the students for an additional six-months after their involvement with BASICS.  They have found significant reductions in the high-risk behaviors among students.   

The program’s success is based on the non-judgment atmosphere that tailors to students’ unique health behaviors, according to Linowski. She said that this technique works because you do not tell students that they should stop their behavior, but rather, you “elicit from the individual things they already know so they come up with what works for them.” This affects students’ future decisions so they move “in the direction of lowered risk.”   

The BASICS team works with students to figure out the circumstances that cause substance abuse, asking questions such as “what happened,” “who were you with,” “what contributed to the situation,” and “how can it be done more safely?” This approach meets the students half-way by assessing and planning with them instead of just ordering them about, Linowski said. 

“When people are treated with respect and like adults, they appreciate it,” Linowski said.  

Many students within the BASICS program, however, disagree about the extent of the program’s effectiveness for all students involved. Some of the students in the BASICS program have claimed to have just been “in the wrong place at the wrong time” when they were documented being in rooms with alcohol violations and subsequently ordered to enter the BASICS program.

“I thought BASICS was interesting and that it handed out a lot of interesting data and information to the students, but I don’t know that it was exactly helpful for anything but giving back feedback to the students,” said Aidan Griffin, sophomore political science major and former participant in the BASICS program. “It is a program designed to make you think of your own consumption and to get you information about where your consumption puts you in relation to nationwide percentages.”

Griffin added, “It shows you were you stand in terms of how your consumption can lead to alcoholism, but for many students it is basically just paying $100 to learn that you really don’t have much of a problem.” 
Linowski said that what makes this program so special is that, not only is it non-judgmental and non-shaming, but it is evidence based.  DARE is not an evidence based program, she said.  This means there is no proof that going through the program will reduce the likelihood of one trying drugs and alcohol.  BASICS, however, has clinical evidence proving it reduces high-risk behavior. 

“We’re not going to waste the time or money of the students or university on programs that don’t work,” Linowski said.   

She adds that they will continue to run the program until there is no longer a need for it.  Right now, according to Linowski, high-risk drinking on college campuses is still a problem.  She hopes that, after educating people, there will not be a need for the BASICS program.   

Linowski also said that there has not been much advertisement for the program because of trouble keeping up with the amount of students who showed up for assistance.  Now, they are fully staffed and considering advertisement to help as many students as possible.   

Students can receive help on the third floor of University Health Services.  Appointments can be made either on the phone (413) 577-5071 or online at the UHS Website.   

Angela Hilsman can be reached at ahilsman@student.umass.edu

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