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Culturally Sensitive Substance Abuse Prevention Curriculum Breaking Down Stigma 

Six years ago, Wassim Mahfouz and his team at Dearborn-based Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities knew they needed an intervention to reach kids considering using drugs.  

“We were facing a huge drug epidemic and overdose epidemic in the community,” he explained.  

Since introducing Life Skills curriculum in many local schools, there’s been a measurable increase in the number of kids who are aware of the dangers of substance abuse and a decrease in pro-drug attitudes, according to surveys completed by students. The 10-week, evidence-based program focuses on prevention strategies targeted at tweens and teens.    

There’s also been an attitudinal shift in parents and community members, who were introduced to a companion Nurturing Parenting program at the same time, which is a family-centered and trauma-informed education approach designed to increase healthy practices to reduce child abuse and neglectThrough both programs, the barriers and stigma surrounding talking about substance abuse and mental illness have been lowered, Mahfouz explains.  

“Families were and are still ashamed to admit that their daughter or son are abusing substances or have a mental illness,” he said, but noted that more people are opening up and acknowledging substance abuse and substance use disorder as the medical condition it is. “We’ve come a long way from when we started the program.”  

New funding allows expansion of program  

With a $45,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation and an additional $200,000 in joint funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Flinn Foundation and United Way for Southeast Michigan, the program is being expanded to two more schools and about 650 more students.     

Mariam Ismail is the substance abuse prevention program manager at Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities. She works with school-based coordinators to deliver the Life Skills curriculum, which helps students develop coping skills related to reducing stress, managing anger, and developing social and communication skills 

“We really try to develop personal self-management skills,” Ismail said, noting that all the lessons are designed to help kids better resist the lure of drugs and alcohol 

Ninety percent of the students reached through the program are underserved, meaning they might live in poverty or lack access to transportation and behavioral health care. Ismail and her team work closely with school administrators to develop culturally relevant adaptations to the curriculum to best fit the needs of a school’s population. This might mean changing certain topics, such as dating, to fit the cultural expectations of parents. It also means hiring staff who look like the students they serve and have similar cultural experiences.   

Community partnerships have helped amplify the message and reach more people at places they’re most comfortable, such as mosques and churches. LAHC will set up tables during religious services to provide information and talk to people about any concerns they have about loved ones and their drug use.  

Ismail said you never would have been able to talk about topics like drug overdose in a mosque prior to these efforts. Families who had lost loved ones felt ashamed and isolated.  

“That came with a lot of stigma and a lot of pain,” she said.    

Mahfouz is encouraged by the shift in thinking in the community and is thankful to Blue Cross and other funders for their support of the programming.  

“I don’t think you can put a price tag on saving lives and keeping families together,” he said.  

“We’re thrilled to be able to support more students having access to this proven program,” said Audrey Harvey, executive director and CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation. “Empowering young people with coping skills to help them resist substances while also encouraging community conversations to help break down stigma so families aren’t ashamed to seek help is a two-pronged approach that’s creating healthier futures for families.”  

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