Dr. Dolores Cimini, a senior research scientist within the University at Albany's Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, is our guest for this episode. During the interview, Dolores talks about how her campus used information from the One Pill Can Kill campaign, the similarities between preventing drug misuse among college students and transmitting COVID-19, and much more.
Rich Lucey: Hi, this is Rich Lucey, Senior Prevention Program Manager in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.
And welcome to this episode of Prevention Profiles: Take Five.
Excited to have today a repeat guest, Dr. Dolores Cimini.
Dolores hasn't been with us for about three years so I think we've got a lot to maybe catch up on in terms of what's been happening in the field currently.
So let me tell you a little bit about Dolores before we get started.
Dr. Dolores Cimini is a New York State licensed psychologist and senior research scientist within the University at Albany's Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology School of Education.
The screening and brief intervention program developed by Dr. Cimini, the STEPS program, has earned ten national awards for best practices and innovation in behavioral healthcare and was listed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices in January 2014.
Dr. Cimini currently sits on the American Psychological Association's Commission on Accreditation and has served on the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention's National Advisory Council.
And with that, Dolores, welcome to the podcast.
Cimini: Thank you so much, Rich.
I'm so happy to be here again.
Lucey: Absolutely and it's always a thrill to get your input and your perspective on a variety of things.
We're going to read this in a couple of issues from our previous interview, like I said about three years ago.
But our first couple of questions are really going to deal with some more current events so let's just get right into it with our first question.
So last fall the Drug Enforcement Administration launched its One Pill Can Kill campaign to raise awareness about the dangers associated with counterfeit prescription drugs.
Soon after we notified our stakeholders and the general public about this campaign and your school made quick use of the information that we provided.
How did that come about and how might other colleges and universities consider using the information that we provided?
Cimini: Well, thanks for asking about that, Rich, because this is a very, very important and potentially deadly challenge that we're all facing right now in the United States and also in colleges and universities.
I want to start by saying that I always appreciate receiving information from the Drug Enforcement Administration and also the Campus Drug Prevention website and the information that you provide us as college professionals.
It keeps me current and it alerts me to issues that I need to pay attention to and need to share with my university.
In September you sent us the information about the One Pill Can Kill campaign and specifically a public service announcement regarding fentanyl laced pills that were being sold over the internet through Snapchat and the like.
And I certainly paid attention to that.
But then coincidentally about two weeks later our university specifically in the community that the students live in was faced with a need to engage in three opioid overdose reversals with Naloxone.
And so that really brought to the fore the big concern and how it hit home for our campus.
What I did immediately when I heard about the overdoses is I met with our Vice-President for Student Affairs who has been always very supportive about issues of concern around alcohol and other drugs, and I talked with him about a plan to address this opioid related challenge faced by our country and by our campus by creating a plan.
So we laid out a plan to provide Naloxone training to our students, to our employees and particularly to our student leaders.
I met with our student government leaders and talked to them about our concerns.
We trained a number of student leaders in Naloxone administration as well as our employees.
In addition to that we took advantage of the required annual notification that needs to be done through the U.S.
Department of Education each October by adding information about the public service warning to all students and employees.
So essentially that announcement and the link to the One Pill Can Kill documents went to every single employee and every single student at our university.
We have since I'm happy to say trained quite a few student leaders and employees in administration of Naloxone.
In fact our fraternities and sororities who were not able to attend the Naloxone trainings we provided actually reached out to our state agency addressing alcohol and substance use prevention and requested their own Naloxone training.
So they actually brought in trainers and they attended these trainings at 100% attendance which was very unusual for many of our student groups.
They're taking this very, very seriously.
I'm happy to report though certainly we can't predict what's going to happen in the future that since the cases of overdoses that we experienced we have had none since October.
And I'm also very, very happy to report that it was the Chair of our Campus Community Coalition, the Committee on University and Community Relations that happened to carry Naloxone on his person on the evening of one of the overdoses and was involved in saving a student's life.
So I can't stress enough how appreciative I am for the information around the One Pill Can Kill campaign that the DEA has provided.
And we continue to work on our efforts in addressing this issue.
We have created some media materials in terms of social media and posters and ads for bus shelters with QR codes to the One Pill Can Kill campaign materials so we can get it out to the public.
And we are currently planning an overdose awareness week for mid-February which will include not only offerings of Naloxone training for our campus but also training sessions in CPR that is also very important when dealing with this issue, and then programs around some of the areas of emphasis that the One Pill Can Kill campaign has brought to our attention.
So I'm ending this response by thanking you very much, Rich, for sending us this.
Lucey: Absolutely and first of all for our listeners to learn more about this campaign, go to DEA's homepage, dea.gov/onepill and there you can read the public safety alert that Dolores referenced that we had issued last fall along with resources for parents for the media partner's toolbox with graphics and such in it so that you also can promote this particular campaign and the seriousness of it.
Dolores, when we've done some presentations over the last month or so and one of the things that's come up is as we know in our field that scare tactics, they don't work.
They're not an effective prevention approach.
And what we are getting out in front of kind of that thought that people are thinking this might be a scare tactic is that this is fact based campaign that is scary and serious, and it is all based in reality.
We know that in 2020, 2021 I should say, unfortunately several college students did lose their lives during the course of the year because they accidentally without knowing it took prescription pills that were laced with fentanyl, so again the reason for launching this campaign.
I'd have to think that from your perspective and where you are at the university, the scariness and the seriousness of this really hits home when your students are involved, correct?
Cimini: Absolutely and I'm glad you mentioned that, Rich, because we at the University at Albany in our prevention efforts focus on building on strengths.
We do not use scare tactics because they just don't work.
But this is different.
For this what we are doing is we are letting the data guide us.
There's data out there that this is very serious, that people are dying, and so the data is telling the story for us.
And then we are helping our campus and our community address this devastating issue by teaching skills on how to prevent opioid misuse and addressing the issue specifically of the fentanyl laced products that are out there.
And then also God forbid in the event of situations in which there are opioid overdoses, how people can intervene to address these issues.
Lucey: Absolutely and thank you for that again perspective and for what you are doing which is science based and evidence informed prevention.
Again I want to remind our listeners to find out more about this campaign go to dea.gov/onepill.
You can download the facts sheet there about counterfeit pills.
DEA's labs are finding that of the pills seized, about every two out of five pills contain a lethal amount of fentanyl.
So again this is quite a serious situation we find ourselves in.
Dolores, I'm going to segue to our second question which is there's no way we could do an interview without talking about the pandemic.
It has basically consumed our lives and a lot of the focus of our efforts over the last now almost two full years.
And during the pandemic you, me and a number of our colleagues from around the country have presented a panel discussion that looks at the intersection between preventing drug misuse among college students and transmitting COVID-19.
What were some of the key reasons that you started looking at this issue on your campus and what was the most surprising lesson that you learned?
Cimini: Well, certainly I totally agree that the pandemic has turned our lives upside down to say the least.
And I'm a data nerd as you probably know, Rich, and so I really let the data guide my work.
Right before the pandemic began we completed our annual spring survey where we asked about alcohol and other drug use negative consequences and related risk factors.
And then once the pandemic started and our students went remote, I was asking myself I wonder how being remote is affecting student alcohol and drug use.
And also does alcohol and drug use impact how students are following COVID-19 public health guidelines? So we got approval to send out another survey in May and June of 2020, and we also then sent out another one in the fall of 2020.
And we added to our usual questions about alcohol and other drug use some questions about compliance with COVID-19 public health guidelines like mask wearing and hand washing and physical distancing and also attitudes toward things like hand washing, mask wearing and physical distancing.
And what we found was that the more alcohol that students were reporting using the more likely they were to not comply with things like mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing and the more likely they were to not feel that they needed to support their communities by complying with these guidelines.
That was very striking to me because at that same time we were beginning to see articles in the national press and issues locally for us in Albany that there were incidents of COVID related transmission around parties that college students were having.
And so that really brought it home for me.
What I did when I saw that data which really concerned me is I met with our Vice-President for Student Affairs and I mentioned to him that we needed a plan to address this.
This was very serious.
It's not being discussed about yet anywhere, but this is going to be creating some problems if we don't address it immediately.
So I proposed that we put together an alcohol and other drug and COVID-19 group that would look at the association between those two issues and work together to develop a plan of action to address that in a comprehensive manner using a public health framework.
So I identified some stakeholders that would need to be at the table.
And for those that listen to this podcast, they're the usual suspects, people in conduct, residential life, student services, student activities, counseling center, health center faculty.
So we met and we started meeting weekly and we're still meeting to this day.
And so what we did is we created a comprehensive plan, looking at the literature that was out there in the areas of sexual health and HIV AIDS because the strategies I thought at the time that were out there for that, and that is providing medical intervention and providing education together with that were addressing HIV and sexual health well.
And that's what we did.
So for COVID-19 prevention what we did is we gave out masks on campus and in the community.
We gave out education not only to our students but to members of our local community where our students lived.
Our campus ambassadors went out door to door and put bags with masks and information and hand sanitizer in fact at the doors of students and our local neighbors.
And it was very much appreciated by everyone in our community.
It was very much seen as a good will effort.
And I'm happy to say that there were no big issues around transmission really throughout the pandemic up until now, up until this point.
One of the specific things that we did in terms of our interventions is we anticipated what the high risk periods were for alcohol and other drug use.
And again for those that are in the field, you're probably familiar with these, the beginning of the academic year, Halloween and St. Patrick's Day.
And so we created campaigns borrowing from the literature on sexual health and HIV AIDS transmission prevention and created materials such as, Have you had the COVID talk? To talking about boundaries and relationships, and how do you talk to your partners and your friends about being safe with COVID? How do you have events in your home, in your house, parties that are safe around COVID? So we created documents such as that and then we released them.
We re-released them at high risk periods and designed them so that they looked different.
So for around Halloween we put pumpkins on the documents.
On St. Patrick's Day we put shamrocks and things on the documents.
They were essentially the same, but they looked new to the students.
And again I'm happy to say that during those high risk periods there was not one, not one incident in our campus and in our community with alcohol and drug related COVID-19 transmission and alcohol and drug related incidents period.
There was just nothing.
It was the quietest set of high risk periods that we've had.
And there was a concern about St. Patrick's Day because we had the students.
There was no spring break then.
We've been doing for years environmental management where we would send students home during the St. Patrick's Day week so they would be out of town and wouldn't really be around to gather in high risk ways.
And that couldn't be done the first St. Patrick's Day after the pandemic started, and so we were really, really concerned.
Now we did other things too certainly.
We had the university police and the Albany police doing patrols.
Staff volunteered to be alongside the police, walking around the streets and things like that, walk and talks.
So we did a lot, but it all worked.
And essentially what we followed in terms of this process is what we call the three "C's".
And that is comprehensiveness, collaboration and compassion.
Comprehensiveness means whenever we were dealing with any issue or any high risk period, trying to prevent alcohol and drug use and COVID-19 transmission, we used the comprehensive public health framework and we planned according to that.
Collaboration, we used our partners on campus and in the community to work with us.
And then compassion, understanding that the majority of our students are under 25 and are learning during a period when their brains are not fully developed.
Then we didn't want to take an approach where we were punishing students for behaviors that might occur, but we wanted to be focused on educating them instead.
And all in all so far so good.
I'm really happy to report that there has been a really wonderful uptake of this COVID-19 and alcohol and other drug group where one of my colleagues in conduct selected that as one of his top priorities to carry for this year in his work plan.
And we are looking at as the pandemic lifts actually keeping this workgroup going, renaming it and not calling it COVID-19 and alcohol and drug use anymore.
But our group members really want to stay together because we think we have something really good going, and well, I guess it's one of the benefits of the pandemic and one of the lessons that we learned that we want to keep going.
Lucey: So I love the three "C's" since I've heard you talk about comprehensiveness, collaboration and compassion.
And I think that whenever I heard you speak on this issue and our colleagues, it really is translating all of the lessons learned and the best practices that we know in the alcohol and other drug misuse prevention field and then using that and applying it to the issues around COVID-19 transmission.
They're pretty readily translatable if you will.
And I think that you've been able to show that at the University at Albany.
Lucey: So what were, what do you think was one of the biggest surprises or positive outcomes that have been through this pandemic in the work that you've been doing there with this new group?
Cimini: Well, I would say that I actually expected that we would have some issues and incidents around alcohol and drug use and related COVID-19 transmission.
I was really surprised at the fact that there was nothing and things were actually better in terms of reductions and rates of risk behaviors in general than before the pandemic.
I think we learned quite a bit.
And now it's really become second nature for our colleagues in our workgroup to say, okay, let's look at what's going to happen this semester.
Let's look at the risk period.
They're actually taking on the language of prevention, and they're taking on the mentality of prevention that we all love so much and we know works so well.
And it's really gotten embedded into the life of our brother and sister agencies on campus and even in our coalition.
Lucey: That's great that you've been able to probably solidify and maintain I guess and solidify existing partnerships that you had on campus and the community, but you've actually now developed some new ones that you now have some maybe longstanding partners now in the making.
Cimini: Yes, we do.
Lucey: So as I go to the third question, it's really anchored in one of the underlying foundations of the strategic prevention framework which is sustainability.
So full disclosure to listeners, you can always read my bio but I am an alum of the University at Albany and I stay on top of issues affecting the campus as an alum.
And one of the things I know that has been a significant issue at the University at Albany is the number of changes in leadership, especially at the president's level.
And in fact, Dolores, I've lost count.
Since 1990 I think it was 14 or 15.
I'm not even sure what number we're at now.
But it's been like almost every two or three years it seems like you have a new person in the president's role, either in an acting capacity or a permanent capacity.
And in the strategic planning guide to prevent drug misuse among college students called Prevention With Purpose that DEA published in 2020, you talk about dealing with changes in upper administration.
You have so much experience with this particular issue.
What do you think is the key to your school's prevention efforts withstanding so much transition?
Cimini: I really think that the bottom line is that no matter who's in the lead at colleges and universities and no matter how much change occurs over the years, the people that are really making the difference and are moving the dial in terms of preventing alcohol and drug use and promoting health and wellbeing are the people with the boots on the ground, the people who are there every day working with the students to prevent risk.
So really no matter what president has been in place for us, we have always continued to do our work.
The most important thing for us with regard to those elements that help us do our work is that we continue to collect data.
We collect data annually on rates of alcohol and drug use, negative consequences, protective behaviors, related risks.
So when we are asked for data, we know what's going on and we also know what the trends are.
And the trends over the last 25 years that we've been collecting data annually are that alcohol use is going down and cannabis use is pretty stable even though we are now a recreationally legal state for marijuana.
So we know that.
When a new president comes in, they have a lot on their radar.
They have a lot of things to deal with that are very, very critical, more critical than the work that we do in alcohol and other drug prevention.
So we've got it under control.
We tell the new president when you have some time we'd love to meet with you to tell you what we've been doing, what we've been working on, but know that in the meantime we've got it under control.
We're handling it.
So it helps to make them feel comfortable because there are many, many issues that presidents deal with.
The other thing that's been helpful to us is that since 1990, and this started after the death of a student in one of our residence halls in 1989, a president's advisory council on the prevention of alcohol and drug misuse and related risks was started.
And it's still existing.
And so that meets twice a year.
It is comprised of stakeholders including administrators, faculty, staff and students.
And what we do there is we review the data and we talk about the 10,000-foot plans campus wide to address alcohol and other drug use and then related risks.
Related risks meaning mental health risks and physical health risks and the like.
So we have that in place and we tell every one of our new presidents we have a council that reports to you, and every year we're happy to meet with you and tell you about what we've done and the like.
We've also strategically placed in leadership on that president's advisory council a senior faculty member who has the ear of the president.
That's very important.
One might think, okay, I'm the alcohol and other drug prevention person on campus.
I should lead this coalition.
I should lead this group.
But in fact I take a step back.
I staff it.
So the faculty member leads the group, but the faculty member and I always meet in advance and plan.
The faculty member asks me, okay, what would you like me to address? What are the issues? I'm happy to support you.
And that really has also led to the success of our weathering different transitions.
I am happy to say that right now we have a president who really is very supportive of our issues and concerns.
He by profession is a sociologist and a demographer.
And his focus area and his academic area of contribution is disaster response.
He's gone to Puerto Rico and other areas to give guidance on managing disasters.
He is very much in his thinking similar to the ways that we think and respond in terms of comprehensive prevention.
And I'm also happy to have the privilege of being the co-chair under the president of a health promoting campus initiative that is comprised of 50 people, students, faculty, staff and employees representing the broader campus community.
And our president in August announced that he wants to make us a health promoting campus which of course includes alcohol and other drug prevention but lots of other things and actually working to change the culture in terms of supporting our wellbeing, wellbeing for everyone.
So I'm just very excited about that.
I think we're in a good place at the moment.
But you know, if there are transitions ahead in years moving forward, they're very well [inaudible 32:14].
They're always are for all of us.
We have a way forward and we have a process that we can rely on.
Lucey: So I know that our listeners, some of them may be struggling with getting the attention of the president on issues around alcohol and other drug use and misuse prevention.
And I think one of the keys to the success there at University that I've heard you talk about, I've read about is one of the keys is really tying the work that you do in prevention to the broader issues that the school and I guess the president is focused on.
So whether that's student success and student retention, campus security, fiscal management, those are the issues that are really kind of top of mind for a college university president.
And it's tying the work that you do in prevention to the broader school's mission, and that helps to cement if you will the sustainability of the work that you're doing.
Is that true?
Cimini: Yes, absolutely.
That is very, very important.
In fact what I try and do is to try and be sure as much as I can that the priorities that we have in supporting prevention, in supporting wellbeing are reflected certainly in my work plan and in my goals for my unit, and then ideally what I want to see is that those goals and objectives and priorities are reflected in the division's goals and objectives that I work in, and at this point it's Student Affairs.
And then ultimately that that gets transmitted into the university wide strategic priorities.
And I'm happy to say at this point that the strategic priorities for the University at Albany include student success and wellbeing as the number one priority for the university.
Now that gives us a lot of latitude and a lot of room to be able to do our prevention work and have it at the top of the list of things to pay attention to.
So we're very happy about that at this point.
Lucey: That's fantastic to have that particular area of focus so high on the list of the president and other senior administrators.
Cimini: That's better than I would've ever expected at any point in time.
I'm just very, very proud of where I am and our leadership.
So I want to move to my fourth question and this is an issue.
Obviously it's near and dear to your heart, and I've learned a lot from you on this particular topic and that's diversity.
You are a strong advocate for diversity, whether that is around race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability issues, just to name a few.
As a field, how do you think we're doing with incorporating diversity into our efforts to prevent drug misuse among college students?
Cimini: Well, I want to first disclose because we are doing an audio podcast for those that don't know me, I actually am a member of a historically minoritized background.
At least that's one of my identities.
And that is that I'm a person with a disability.
I'm visually impaired.
I travel with a seeing eye dog.
And I've experienced firsthand the discrimination, the oppression that we as minoritized people experience.
Moving ahead to your question about how are we doing in the area of alcohol and other drug misuse prevention with regard to diversity, I think we still have a lot of work to do.
Certainly there's been a lot more attention on the importance of diversity across colleges and universities these days which is great.
But the attention really needs to be broadened to include certainly not only race and ethnicity but to support people from LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, diversity in terms of age, beliefs, a whole variety of different things.
And I think we really never talk about that enough.
My ideal in terms of seeing a time when we can say, yes, diversity is well represented is when diversity is embedded into everything we do.
We don't want to just put out job descriptions.
Okay, we need somebody who is a person of color so we'll put out something focused on race-based issues as a position that we want.
That's not what it's about.
It's about living this.
It's about, it's about engaging in supporting diversity in everything we do.
I would love to see a time when I can go to alcohol and other drug prevention conferences and really witness the rich diversity.
I think I'm one of the few people with disabilities going to such conferences.
And I still see fewer colleagues of color than I would like.
I would love to see that.
We are moving forward, but we need to do some work.
But I think there needs to be really more intense dialogue across colleges and universities in general before the prevention field can also move ahead.
So let's hope that that will happen over the next three years before you interview me again, Rich.
Lucey: Yeah, you know, when I hear you talk about this, when I hear you say we want to get beyond the checking of a box, I think that we'll know that we've reached that point when we don't feel like we don't have to check a box, that it's just become a fabric of what we do.
And you know, I know that 2020, you know, we talked a lot about obviously the pandemic.
But there was so much else going on that year and has continued around civil unrest that has been anchored in social injustice and racial injustice issues.
And when you know, diversity, equity and inclusion, it's now started as you said.
I think it's started to become a part of what we do now not just this thing that, oh, it's on the checklist of things that we need to make sure that we do.
It's now becoming hopefully second nature if you will.
That's I think a part of what we strive for.
Again I go back to the strategic prevention framework.
The other lying foundation of the SPF is cultural confidence which should be considered a very broad, when we talk about culture, right? I think it should be a very broad brush.
But one of the things we talk about in the strategic planning guide as it relates to that is cultural humility, which is an ongoing process where we as individuals and as institutions need to continually look in the figurative mirror and address our own biases and discriminations that we may hold on any variety of cultural issues.
And as you said, diversity is just one of those.
So I appreciate all that you've done to continue to hold.
I'm at my third federal government that I'm working for now.
I think every agency I've worked for you've continued to hold us accountable in the materials that we develop, the way in which we provide the materials, the meetings that we host in inclusion that way.
So I have to say thank you for that.
That's why I've learned so much from you on this particular issue.
Cimini: Well, thank you for saying that.
And so my next aim for DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion, is to add an "A" at the end of that.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access.
And that doesn't just mean disability access.
It means access to everyone for the services, the programs, the opportunities they deserve.
Lucey: That's such an important word and thank you for highlighting that as well.
As we start to wrap up our interview, I turn to the question I ask of all of the guests that we host here on the podcast.
And so this is your opportunity for words of advice and encouragement.
So for our listeners, whether they are new to this field or they've been around a while like you and I have, what words of encouragement can you give to them about working to prevent drug misuse among college students?
Cimini: I would say to always remember that the process of preventing alcohol and other drug misuse and prevention in general is not a linear one.
We're going to have gains.
We're going to have successes.
But we're also going to have setbacks and even things that we interpret as failures.
But my belief is that if we don't fail sometimes then we're not going to really make successes.
We're not going to be successful.
And we're not going to really move forward in the way that we should.
So I call it failing forward.
That's one thing.
That said, I think we need to also focus on celebrating the successes no matter how small we think they are and to reach out in the event that we're experiencing challenges that may feel too much for us.
There's much more focus in many fields right now about mentoring.
And if you don't at this point have a mentor, try and find one.
Go to a conference.
Network with people.
And if you feel like you're connecting with someone, ask them to stay in touch with you.
At the recent NASPA strategies conference I was asked to host a program called Coffee and Conversation during the exhibit hour.
And there were several tables full of people that came to that just to hear about the struggles and the issues that I've contended with over the years.
And a number of them actually have followed up and gotten in touch.
I think, I think our profession needs and is hungry right now for mentoring.
So I would say go get a mentor.
Know that things are not linear.
Celebrate the successes and be calm and carry on.
Lucey: Well, there is so much to unpack in what you just, all of that advice.
And I am now stealing that phrase of failing forward.
I haven't heard that before.
I haven't heard you talk about that.
But maybe for some other interview or maybe a future conference session.
We've talked about epic fails in prevention.
We've been part of that type of a panel discussion.
You mentioned it.
There will be setbacks unfortunately in the work that we do.
Don't shy away from them.
Learn from them.
They are a learning experience.
But on the flipside, celebrate the successes regardless of how small they may seem.
Sometimes the small wins are really important.
And I love the idea of mentorship.
We can all learn from each other in this field.
Dolores, again it's been a pleasure to have you.
I always learn something new from you, whether it's in a workshop or a session like this.
So thank you again for being on the podcast and everything you do, not only at the University at Albany but for colleges and universities around the country.
Cimini: Thank you so much, Rich.
I know that we have worked together for a long time, and I value so much you being in the roles of my project officer and colleague and friend.
A colleague of mine and I were just talking about you yesterday and really singing your praises and really how awesome you are and the contributions that you provide for our field.
They're very much appreciated so thank you so much.
Lucey: Well, that must have been why my ears were burning I guess.
But I do appreciate that.
It's always been a pleasure to help the field in this regard.
So for all of our listeners, again we're going to put the different websites that were referenced during this interview into the show notes for the transcript when you either listen to the podcast or read the interview.
We thank you for joining us, for listening to this episode and previous episodes.
And with that I will ask you to go forth, do good things and have a great day.