Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Dr. Tracy Flinn (National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors)


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Dr. Tracy Flinn, who serves as the Senior Research Analyst with the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, is our guest for this month's episode of Prevention Profiles: Take Five.During the interview, Tracy discusses changes in campus substance use prevention over the years, how states view drug misuse prevention on college campuses, and her advice for campus prevention professionals.

Rich Lucey: Hi, this is Rich Lucey in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section, and welcome to this episode of our podcast series Prevention Profiles: Take Five.
I’m excited to have as our guest today Tracy Flinn from NASADAD, and I’ll explain what that is right now as I tell you a little bit about Tracy before we get into our questions.
So Dr. Tracy Flinn is the Senior Research Analyst with the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors primarily working with State Substance Abuse Prevention Directors.
In this role Tracy provides technical assistance, coordinates topic calls and webinars, develops facts sheets and other resources and helps to coordinate the annual National Prevention Network Prevention Research Conference.
She was previously the Associate Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.
Dr. Flinn also directed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded A Matter of Degree Coalition at the University of Delaware where she implemented environmental prevention strategies to reduce alcohol and other drug use among students and established a statewide coalition of colleges and universities.
She received her doctorate in higher education administration and educational leadership from the University of Delaware in 2007.
With that, Tracy, welcome to the podcast.

Tracy Flinn: Hi, Rich.
Thanks for inviting me.
Lucey: Yeah, it’s always fun when I go through the bios, right?
It’s like a little bit of a trip down memory lane probably for both of us.

Flinn: A little, yeah.

Lucey: Johnson and a matter of degree and all of that.
So you know, that’s really going to lead into my first question because, you know, I think you and I first knew of each other maybe from your time at the University of Delaware, then got to know each other through your time as an Associate Director for the Higher Ed Center, and certainly I worked a lot more closely with you as you started your work as you transitioned into your role at NASADAD a few years ago.
So although you’re not working on a college campus now, I know that you stay attuned to current and emerging issues related to preventing drug misuse among college students.
So from your time at the University of Delaware until now, what do you perceive as being one or two significant changes as it relates to prevention?
Flinn: Well, Rich, I know like you higher ed prevention is kind of where my heart is.
So even though we’ve moved around some in recent years we still like to keep on top of what’s going on.
One big change that I’ve seen is the lack of the national training and technical assistance support for campuses.
Although I applaud what you’re doing at the DEA and Ohio State University’s Higher Education Center that they have created, it’s filling the void.
I might be wrong but I think back when I worked on campus and then at the original Higher Ed Center it just felt like there was more of a community and a connection with other campuses.
In addition there was like an abundance of resources, onsite training, more technical support.
I just seemed like we were always in the news.
That just seems to be the biggest change.
And again I’ve been away from campus since 2007 and then the Higher Ed Center was closed in 2012.
So another change that I observed is that campus Student Life and Wellness staff are being asked to do more with less resources, and that means fewer staff as well as less funding.
They’re not only dealing with the substance use issues but also mental health issues and suicide prevention.
And it just seems like both students and staff have a lot more on their plates now than they did maybe five to ten years ago.

Lucey: You are certainly correct.
I have said from the time that I left the Department of Ed, which was back in 2008, you know, the landscape; and that’s how I used to and still portray it, that the landscape of prevention specifically as it relates to preventing drug misuse among college students has changed so much over the last ten years.
And it certainly has shifted from the time you and I worked together and collaborated in our previous roles.
You are absolutely correct in terms of the lack of, I call it intentional or direct resources to colleges and universities.
I don’t make a secret of it.
It shouldn’t be a secret.
When I was at the Department of Ed and overseeing the Higher Ed Center with Bill DeYoung and Ginger McKay-Smith, and the direct grants we had to colleges and universities to prevent either high risk drinking or violent behavior among college students, we had a portfolio that amounted to five and a half million dollars.
And that was directly, directly for preventing alcohol and other drug use among college students.
And I think that’s unheard of now.
And I do applaud what Jim Lang and Cindy Clowner and others are doing at Ohio State University with the Higher Ed Center that was created there.
I’ve talked to them about it.
I don’t think it’s any secret.
It really wasn’t intended to fill the void that was left from the former Department of Ed’s Higher Ed Center.
I don’t think it could.
There was so much national training and TA that was taking place, and I think you’re absolutely right.
That’s unfortunate that that seems to be so much lacking now even though, you know, without patting ourselves on the back too much, I mean DEA, we are trying.
We are also not trying to fill a huge void, but we’re trying to do what we can to help support the professionals around the country in their effort to prevent drug misuse among college students.
So I think you’re absolutely right.
That’s perhaps one of the biggest if not the biggest change over the last ten years.

Flinn: And I think a lot of what we had done over those years have really paved the way for now.
And a lot of those resources are still relevant.
A lot of those lessons learned.
I mean the Strategic Prevention Framework and needs assessment and evaluation and implementing evidence-based practices, it’s all still very relevant.
In some ways it may be a little more difficult, but it also may be a little bit easier for campuses.

Lucey: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.
I just would hope that people would not forget the gains that we’ve made.
There was a little bit of a loss of momentum when, you know, a National Training and TA Center ceases to operate.
I mean I think that does create an issue, but I think that, you know, schools and coalitions are doing what they can and the states to help come together.

They recognize that this age group, 18 to 25-year-olds, of which college students are a significant part of is an age group where you’re seeing some of the biggest increases in drug use across the board.

Flinn: Absolutely.

Lucey: So let me ask you.
Narrow it down a little bit more now for me your time at the Higher Ed Center.
When you were there, and again knowing that one of the functions of the Center was offering training and technical assistance to not only individual colleges and universities as they requested it but also coalitions and such, what seemed to be the biggest challenge that they struggled with then and how if at all do you think that’s changed?
Flinn: Hmm, I think the biggest challenge was funding and using those funds strategically, and also I guess support from the top of the campus administration.
Can I have two challenges?
Lucey: Sure, absolutely, yeah, yeah.

Flinn: It’s so hard to just pick one.
But I suppose they’re connected.
So what I learned from my time on campus and then at the Higher Ed Center was it seems like the bulk of campus prevention funding is best used to support a fulltime staff person who is tasked with doing the work of organizing a coalition who are mostly made up of volunteers.
I just learned, you know, those campuses that had maybe half-time positions or had various staff kind of pitching in.
It just really, they seemed more overwhelmed than having one dedicated, fulltime staff person and that was their job to organize a coalition, to work with a campus survey of assessing student drug misuse and working to implement evidence-based practices, working with the evaluator, working with the coalition of volunteers.
So I learned that effective prevention doesn’t really require a lot of money.
Instead it’s more valuable to fund the staff to do that work.
But right after, when I left higher ed or the Higher Ed Center, what I saw was that more and more campuses were putting a large portion of their prevention dollars into online alcohol education programs.
I’m not going to name any names.

Lucey: There’s plenty out there, yeah.

Flinn: But I was just very perplexed.
I mean in a way it just seemed to be the easy way out but not really the most effective strategy.
You could reach a bunch of students, but from what I had heard they were not really paying attention or they were doing each other’s courses.
So really the tough prevention work on college campus is making those connections involving students, involving key stakeholders, looking at your data.
What is most effective use of your time and your energy that would get the most bang for your buck?
Lucey: Yeah, that certainly ties back to what we were talking about with the first question.
In campus student life and especially the people working in those areas being asked to do a lot more with a lot less.
I don’t think; there are very few campuses, I think, where they have the luxury of a fulltime person who’s dedicated solely to this.
I mean in all the conversations I’ve had and conferences I’ve gone to and people I’ve come in contact with, it just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.
And I don’t know how and if we’ll ever get back top that so I think it is important for schools as you were saying to be really strategic in how they’re using their funds.
When I was working in New York and I would say this to campuses all the time, you know, New York State didn’t invest a whole lot of money into our efforts around alcohol and drug use prevention among colleges.
It was my fulltime salary.
That was about it.
And it was then up to me to help go out and maybe secure grant funds or work with a college or university to get grant funds.
It was that leveraging of relationships that ultimately led us to the successful things that we were doing in New York like a conference and a college manual and statewide coalition and such like that.
So I think you’re right.
It doesn’t always require an awful lot of money.
It’s just how are you being strategic in leveraging your resources?
Flinn: Exactly.
And then that goes back to buy-in from the top administration, whether it be the VP for Student Affairs or even the President.
If you have a champion, that can go a long way in institutionalizing a lot of the activities and the support.
And then media.
I mean media is important too.
It’s just having a strong media campaigns and presence and just constantly getting your message out there.
Lucey: Yeah.
So as I move onto a third question, and now I’m moving along your timeline if you will and to your various roles.
In your role at NASADAD, I know that you regularly interact with each of the states’ Prevention Directors, many of whom I certainly come in contact with and have become friends with and such, and certainly not to put anyone on the spot or how they should or shouldn’t be doing their job, but this is coming from a place of my having worked at a state level for so long and I’m attuned to this issue.
Do you get the sense that preventing drug misuse among college students is on the states’ radar screens?
And I guess the follow-up would be what suggestions do you have on the flipside for colleges and universities to effectively engage and collaborate with their state’s agency that deals with substance misuse issues?
Flinn: Well, first I do think that many state Prevention Directors are concerned about drug misuse among this age group, not only college students but non-college students.
So in that, is it 18 to 24 or 18 to 25?
Lucey: It sometimes depends I guess on the survey you’re looking at but usually 18 to 25 catches them all.

Flinn: Yeah, yeah, but I think, you know, a lot of the traditional state prevention efforts have been directed at middle and high school  students, you know, at the in school educational programs.
But when you look at the data, drug misuse, like you said, among that 18 to 25-year-old age group is rising and it’s concerning.
So what can campus staff do?
 Well, they can reach out to the Prevention Director in their state.
So this is the person who sits in the state agency responsible for substance use, substance abuse, mental health services.
The agency names range so if you’re trying to find that person in your state, I guess you could either contact Rich or contact me, but they do range in what they’re called.
So they can either sit in what Alabama calls for example the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division.
And yes, there are a lot of state agencies that still use “abuse”.
They really haven’t gotten around to changing their name.
But in Virginia the Prevention Director resides in the Office of Behavioral Wellness.
So they’re called different things in different states.
So either a quick search or asking one of us, we could put you in contact with them.
I think they’d really be thrilled to talk more with campus staff.
So what this Prevention Director can do is they can connect colleges and universities with existing coalitions or prevent efforts that are already occurring around campus in the local community.
Also these state directors, they oversee the Federal Substance Abuse Prevention block grant funds from SAMSA and other prevention discretionary grants.
So many states have a system in place whereby the local communities can apply for these funds, and that includes campuses.
I know for example that in Missouri the Partners in Prevention statewide coalition of colleges and universities does use some of those state funds to help support their statewide coalition.
Lucey: Yeah, I have talked to; well, whenever I’m doing presentations or people ask me about how can I work with my state?
 They know my history, my bio.
I was very, very fortunate, I say blessed, to have worked in this state and for an individual, and it’s no secret.
Fran Harding is my mentor to this day.
But you know, we both having worked for the state of New York and led national efforts from the state of New York in some respects, that’s a really good piece of advice that you just said that I’ve given to others as I do presentations as to reach out to the state because while they may not be swimming in money; I don’t want to make it seem like there’s blank checks lying around.
It can never hurt for somebody to contact the state’s Prevention Director.
And between you and me, we have those contacts we can give people.
And just knock on the door so to speak and find out what they’re doing if anything around preventing drug misuse among college students, and see if there’s a way for the campus to become involved in those efforts.
I mean it never can hurt to ask.

Flinn: It doesn’t.
No, it doesn’t.
And they have so much on their plates at the state level that they’re not always proactively reaching out to local communities so I think it’s a smart move to get in contact with them.
And they can link you up with other efforts in your area.
So I think, you know, it’s a win-win all around.

Lucey: I totally agree.
And I think that that’s great advice.
And I do know there are a lot of states that are looking at this issue again.
Some are looking at the age range if you will, and some are maybe narrowing the focus and looking at a subpopulation like college students.
But I guess I would want to tell the listeners if you’re interested in trying to find out a little bit more about what your state might be doing in this area, certainly I can put you in touch with Tracy or I can just give you the contact information for the Prevention Director that is in your state.
I think it’s a great first step for a school.
So I want to move onto the fourth question and I want to talk about the Prevention Research Conference.
I mentioned in introducing you that you coordinate this conference with the National Prevention Network.
There are a couple of national conferences a year that I usually have a significant either interest in or participation in, and for me it’s one of the premier conferences to go to, and even if you’re not presenting, to attend and soak up all the knowledge that’s going on at that event.
So first let me just say you and the National Prevention Network, the NPN, do a great job.
And I know this year you’ve got a bit of a challenge, just like so many other venues.
It will be held, but it will done virtually at the end of August, 25th and 26th, correct?
Flinn: That’s correct, yeah.

Lucey: And actually I believe we’re posting this interview on the first day of the conference.
On the issue of research, let me ask you, and it’s really from your perspective as a research analyst.
What do you think might be a research area or two that’s lacking or could use more focus when it comes to preventing drug misuse among college students?
Flinn: Well, I think with the increasing number of states that are legalizing marijuana there’s a growing perception among young people that it’s safe.
So I know there is some research going on.
I mean especially Jason Kilmer at the University of Washington who is just such a rock star in this area.
But I’d really like to see more research on how marijuana use affects young developing brains, how it might impact motivation in academic success, and then also the implications of using it with other substances like alcohol.
So I think especially among that college-aged population and in those states where it is, there are retail establishments, just more research around that and even just the perception of harm and how rates have increased.
I can’t really think of anything else.
I mean I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff out there, but just not being in the campus realm for so many years, I’m not as closely involved.
But that’s just one thing.
And I do have two college-aged students of my own.
So yeah.

Lucey: I mean I think what you’ve mentioned certainly is a significant area of focus.
Certainly in talking to colleagues around the country who interact with college students frequently, really whether they’re in college or not but since we are talking about the college student population, there is just as much in the general population this seeming.
It’s not even seeming; it’s actual because we know it from the Monitoring the Future Study that looks at perception of harm, there’s just been a significant decrease in the perception of harm about that particular drug.
And when we know that when there’s that decrease in a perception of harm, you’re going to see an increase in use.

Flinn: Right, right.
And also the idea that it’s safer than alcohol.
I mean, you know, yeah, alcohol, risky alcohol use has a lot of related negative effects.
But just the thought that using marijuana is safer.
So yeah, there’s a lot, I think a lot that can be done around those issues.

Lucey: I think in addition to that, from my perspective, I think we can also continue to benefit from research that continues to look at what’s working and what’s not.
You know, whether it’s evidence-based, evidence-informed, science-based, I mean there’s so many words and terms that tend to float around.
But you know, you tend to, in our field we get on a particular strategy or program that has shown to work.
Well, that’s great but what about five years down the road?
Does that, is that program still considered or that strategy still considered evidence-based?
I mean I think we need to as a field continue to revisit these strategies to ensure that they are still effective.

Flinn: Yeah.
No, I agree.
I agree.
And another one that I just thought of too, just having college-age daughters and step-daughters is with this COVID and a lot of the campuses going virtual or part virtual, a hybrid approach, I think there’s a lot of college students who are still living on or around campus with a lot more free unstructured time.
And we’re going to start seeing that.
I know in the springtime when a lot of colleges shut down, those who were still, many of those who were living in off-campus housing just stayed put either because they wanted to, they were closer to campus and their friends or they were in lease agreements that didn’t end until the end of the semester, into the summer.
So how has COVID impacted substance use, misuse rates among college students?
Lucey: Yeah, you know, from a researcher’s perspective, I don’t know whether 2020 would be considered a researcher’s nightmare or a researcher’s dream, right?
And I somewhat facetiously say it, but you know, it is going to be such an anomaly in looking at trends and such perhaps because of the impact, as you just said, that that COVID-19 is going to have on so many different things.

Flinn: Right.
And it’s not just misuse and misuse but just coping, using it maybe more so to cope with stress and the anxiety over our current situations, not only college students but adults as well.
Lucey: Well, I will jump up and then jump right off my little mini soapbox about this issue that we know that substance misuse tends to go up during stressful times or following a traumatic event.
Certainly COVID-19 fits that bill.
And now is not the time to put prevention efforts on the back burner at all.
I mean now more than ever we need to focus on prevention.

Flinn: Yes, creatively.

Lucey: Yeah, absolutely.
So as we come to the end and I go to question five, it’s kind of become the typical question that I ask my guests on the podcast, and it’s really your opportunity.
What would you say to encourage the professionals who are working to prevent drug misuse among college students as well as the students themselves who are listening to the podcast?
And of course this doesn’t have to just be the folks who are based on a campus.
It could be prevention people in the community, prevention people in the state.
What would you want to say to them?
Flinn: Well, I wrote down a few of my positive thinking, cheerleadery type, you know.

Lucey: That’s great.
We need cheerleading.

Flinn: Yeah.
You know we’re all trying to like keep motivated, stay focused and positive.
So I would say connect with your counterparts at other colleges and universities so you can share strategies and learn from one another.
Pay attention to your students’ substance use data to guide what you decide to focus on.
You don’t want to waste your time.
You don’t want to spin your wheels.
Tap into state resources to support your prevention efforts.
That could be funding or that could be just making more connections.
Assess, strategically plan and evaluate.
It’s really important.
And continue to do so.
Involve, do involve students in your prevention efforts.
Just don’t assume that all students, you know, drink or use drugs in harmful ways.
And a lot want to be part of the solution.
Engage key stakeholders.
There’s a lot of champions out there.
Celebrate the wins where you can get them.
There are lots of wins, and sometimes there’s some losses but learn from them and turn them into wins.
And then finally change doesn’t happen overnight so perseverance is key.
Keeping a positive attitude is key.
And just keep moving on.

Lucey: I was writing furiously as you were going through this list.
And you know, the thing I love about what you’ve offered up, Tracy, is that; and I’ll run through them real quickly.
So connect with your counterparts.
Pay attention to student data.
Tap into state funding or just the state as a resource.
Assess, plan, evaluate.
Engaging your stakeholders, involving your students.
I mean a lot of that is the Strategic Prevention Framework.
It’s what good prevention science tells us to do first of all, and secondly I would say that all of this (I’m looking at it quickly) can be done virtually, which you know, we’re all being forced to do right now in some way, shape or form.
So I think that right now what the pandemic is forcing us to do is to continue to do what we know is correct.
I’ll say it, as it aligns with prevention science, but maybe just differently or even more micro strategically because of COVID-19.
But we shouldn’t be abandoning good prevention science because of it.
Flinn: Oh, definitely.
I mean there’s still so many things we could be doing and just reaching out to the audiences.
I mean I’ve just been learning a lot about what state Prevention Directors are doing and how they’re just being so innovative.
And one person called it nimble.
We’re nimble.
And it’s just, yeah, they’re just being so creative.
It’s just amazing.
People are amazing me every day.

Lucey: Well, this, Tracy, I thank you for your time on this interview.
You’ve offered up some great perspectives on so many different levels, whether it was your time on campus, your time at a National Training and TA Center, certainly your time now working for a national association.
There’s just so many takeaways I think that our listeners can come away with after listening to the episode.
I really want to thank you for that.
And I think I can speak for DEA.
We look forward to continuing our collaboration with NASADAD and the National Prevention Network and prevention around the country.
Flinn: Oh, absolutely, Rich.
We are looking forward to continuing to collaborate with you in the future and look forward to many years of doing good work together.

Lucey: I total agree.
And so on that extremely positive note, Tracy, thank you.
And to the listeners to this episode of Prevention Profiles: Take Five, thank you for joining us, thank you for listening and we ask you to go forth, do good work and have a great day.
Thank you.