Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Katrin A. Wesner-Harts, Ed.D (University of North Carolina Wilmington)


Audio file

On this episode of the podcast, Rich talks to Dr. Katrin Wesner-Harts who manages the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Abrons Student Health Center. Topics discussed include: the changes in the prevention field during the span of her career, how her school dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, her advice to other prevention professionals, and more.

Rich Lucey: Hi, this is Rich Lucey with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section, and I welcome you to the next episode of our podcast series Prevention Profiles:Take 5.
I'm excited about today's guest, Katrin Wesner-Harts, who is the Director of Student Health Services at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
So before I get into Katrin's bio a little bit, Katrin, welcome to the podcast.

Katrin Wesner-Harts: Thanks, Rich.
I'm excited to be here.

Lucey: Absolutely.
And I think in full disclosure as we tell our audience that Katrin and I have known each other about 27 years when I first got into the prevention field back in New York State, and she and I have been best friends since that time so it's real exciting to have her on the show not only as a really good friend but also as a great colleague in this field.
So let me tell you a little bit about Katrin.
Katrin Wesner Harts is responsible for management of the University of North  Carolina Wilmington's Abrons Student Health Center which includes medical services, pharmacy, health promotion and Crossroads which is the campuses alcohol and other drug education and prevention department.
She is responsible for policy development and implementation.
She works on budget management, public relations and personnel.
And she has been with the Student Health Center since January 2007, and she is a member of the American College Health Association's Board of Directors.
And we'll actually get into that a little bit later in the interview with some exciting change for Katrin in that organization.
So Katrin, if you're ready, we're going to start right in on our five questions.
So you've been working on alcohol and drug abuse prevention among college students for more than 25 years as I have.
It's hard to imagine that it's been that long.
As you look back, what stands out to you in terms of positive things that have occurred in prevention during that time, and maybe what hasn't changed as much?
Harts: Sure.
First of all, it's wild to think that it's been 25 years, but it really has.
So when I think about it, I think that one of the neat things is that AOD prevention really has become on many campuses part of the fabric of the university and part of the conversation.
We certainly don't see that everywhere, but for some campuses it really is no longer a fight to get on the table or at the table about that conversation.
I think that research has become much more developed, which has made our jobs in some ways easier.
I know that when I began, I think back, assessment was a scary word.
Like grants, you were allowed to hire an assessment person because the expectation was that you couldn't do assessment on campus.
And now we've taught people how to do that, and it's become much more normalized.
The research has become much more accessible.
We see more doctoral work.
We see some of the national surveys get more and more attraction.
I think when I started, you know, we had the CORE was really up and coming.
The college alcohol study with Dr. Wexler.
I think one of my, still to this day, neatest memories as a young professional was getting the opportunity to drive Henry as he told me I could call him to the airport and thinking, oh my gosh, this is a published researcher and he's in my car.
So that was really cool.
The National College Health Assessment, that has really grown and developed and expanded on alcohol and other drug questions to include other health habits, and now we can compare those to some of our AOD trends has been really wonderful.
Monitoring the Future is still there.
So we have some longitudinal work.
We have some new work.
And I think that has made our field more robust and richer because now it's not just what we think, but we actually can do some data driven best practices.
I think the bigger wellbeing narrative and conversation that's happening can be a positive thing for alcohol and drug abuse prevention.
We just have to be careful it doesn't get lost in the conversation.
I think a lot of times when you hear people talk about wellbeing, it's more physical health, more you know, outwards kind of thing.
So we just need to remember that AOD needs to stay in that conversation.
And then I think 25 years ago we didn't think much about prescription drug use and abuse, and that certainly has become a big piece of our conversation nowadays.
Really I think back.
Rohypnol was really the first time we talked about that, and that was really the misuse of a drug that wasn't even legal or prescribed in the United States.
And now we're thinking about the misuse or misdirection of medication that we're prescribing to our students.
What hasn't changed?
 We do still have to tell our story to some people.
Leadership and staff continue to change.
A lot of schools, the person doing alcohol or drug prevention work is a newer entry level professional so they're going to turn over and go on to other things.
So we need to work with, continue to work with our staff but also with our leadership.
And then we still need to stay one step ahead of the students and the industry.
Things are constantly changing, and so we need to be nimble enough to sort of respond to what's happening out there and not get so entrenched in something from ten years ago that we can't respond to what happened yesterday or anticipate what's going to happen tomorrow, which that's harder.
Lucey: Yeah, you know, it's such a walk down memory lane with the things that you've mentioned and you've expressed it so eloquently.
And you know, there's two things I wanted to pick up on.
One was the assessment issue.
When I go out to presentations and speeches and such, of course I anchor most everything I talk about around the strategic prevention framework and the SPIF, the first step of which is assessment.
And I don't think we can drive home hard enough the message that data drives programming.
You have to have the data to point you in the direction in which you want to go.
And so I think we're at a point now where for some schools, sure, they don't want to release their data.
They're afraid of a bad reputation, you know, real or perceived that they're going to get if they talk about their data.
But you know, the fact that it has become almost second nature I think is really important, and I'm really happy about that.
You know, the other thing I wanted to mention and I hear this frequently is this issue of overall wellness, health and wellbeing.
I think there is a real concern that people are afraid that if we fold substance abuse prevention into an overall wellbeing model that it will get lost.
And we've made really nice strides in our field in terms of driving some of the numbers down, although let's not, you know, be too naive about it.
The 18 to 25 age group is the age group of highest risk when it comes to many of the drugs.
But I think there is, there is a reason why we need to keep that on people's radar so that AOD remains as you put it, and I really like the way you said it.
 Alcohol and other drug abuse prevention has become a real part of the campuses fabric and the conversation that people continue to have on campus.
I'm just afraid that might get lost if we, you know, talk about overall just general wellness.

Harts: Right, and so we need to be the ones who keep that noise going.

Lucey: Right, absolutely.
So thank you for that response to the first question.
So I'm going to switch a little bit now to your experience specifically at your campus.
So during your time at UNC Wilmington, there was another department and I mentioned it in your bio, Crossroads, that was responsible, is responsible for drug abuse prevention.
So you weren't immersed or involved in it as much.
You had a broader responsibility as the Director of the Health Center.
But then there was staff turnover, and that required you to get back up to speed on prevention issues fairly quickly.
So having been away from it, you know, pretty intensively for a while, what is it that you chose to focus on so that you could then hit the ground running and be up to speed with your colleagues who've been working on it for all that time?
Harts: Sure, so yeah, so we had the great opportunity to fold Crossroads into the Health Center which then presented me with this need to get back up to speed.
Luckily I had been on some of the committees on campus so it still was in there.
This has always been a passion of mine so I kept reading, but definitely suddenly the stakes were higher.
So a couple things I did was I reached out to some of my colleagues and asked them what were their two to three go-to articles, their resources, the researchers they followed.
If they had to take something on a deserted island, what would they want to do, take?
So I got some of that.
I called you.
I knew that was the best way to do this.
And then I also looked; I searched the web and I said, What resources are there out there?
 A lot of testings that are now on campus,
I looked at the College AIM.
I looked at DEA's Drugs of Abuse.
I looked at NIDA's work, NIAAA, CSAPP, Department of Ed, anything I could get my hands on, even went back and pulled out some of that old Henry Wexler stuff to get started.
I got my inner nerd on and I read as much as I could and really got, you know, felt like I was back up to speed with some of the data.
I had luckily; we've used the NCHA, the National College Health Assessment.
We still did our biannual alcohol and drug survey on campus so I had been up to date on our local numbers so that was helpful.
And then I also got reconnected with our local resources, the coalitions, the treatment centers, the agencies in town that do some of this work that we would've had other staff participate in.
But I asked some folks like, let me come with you to a coalition meeting.
Let me go to the neighborhood meeting.
Let me, you know, hear from those who are boots on the ground doing this work, what their concerns are, what their issues are about the college.
What do they think is good and bad about us?
 What do they think our students are doing that maybe they would like to see done differently?
 So I think it was just going back to those researcher days of having a sense of how do I, how do I bring myself up to speed quickly on a topic?
 Luckily I had a background in it, and luckily I love to read so it worked out pretty well.
Lucey: Yeah, and it's excellent advice.
And the reason I wanted to ask the question was you've been in the field like I said as I have for 2-1/3 decades or so, and yet there is a time when you almost can feel like entry level or just coming into the field for the first time.
And so the advice you've just given for any of our listeners who are entering the field brand new, if you've only been in your position for like one or two years I think the advice Katrin has given hopefully really resonates with you.
You know, contacting colleagues, if you go on which is an absolute shameless plug for the website which we developed it a year and a half ago out of a need given, presented to us by the field as a one-stop resource for all this information, if you check out the authors of the View From the Field articles or the guests that I've had on previous episodes of the podcast series, I would go so far as to say that every single one of those individuals are entirely approachable.
You know, shoot them an email and just say, Can I get, can I have five, ten minutes of your time to talk to you about what are your go-to resources?
 I think that many if not all of us are very, quite approachable.
And the thing I love about our field is we are willing to help each other.
I mean that's; we all have; we're working in different agencies, community coalitions, campuses, and yet we all have a shared goal of trying to keep our students safe and healthy on the campuses.
So you know, that, certainly checking out all the resources that are available online, but I also loved what you said about your inner nerd and reading as much as possible.
I always hearken back to Fran, a dear friend and colleague of ours, Fran Harding the former director of the Center For Substance Abuse Prevention, who would say it's really incumbent upon us in the field to stay on top of our craft.
And the way you go about doing that is you've got to stay on top of the journal articles.
You have to continue to read and stay abreast of the science because it's ever evolving.
So that's, I'm glad you brought that up because I think that that's really important and I know people say I don't have time.
Well, you know, and I know it's easier said than done.
So if you can squeeze a half an hour to an hour out of your, you know, each week, and set a meeting with yourself.
You know, put a meeting on your calendar with yourself to for an hour read one or two journal articles.
And I think that's excellent advice to give to somebody.

Harts: We try too here to when you find an article that's particularly compelling or informative is we try to share it.
Like I'll share it with the other directors.
We'll share it with our Crossroads team.
Plus with just a few sentences about like what I got out of it.
And I think the more that we can help each other; you talked about the sharing sort of nature of our work.
We absolutely, if you know something, don't hold onto it.
Share it.
And you know, there's no, there's no greater benefit than learning from someone else.
Of if I think this is really great or you think something is really great, let's share it with each other and learn from each other.
Lucey: Absolutely, and I think our field is built upon that kind of collaboration and camaraderie.
So with that I'm going to move us to our third question which really is born out of a very serious situation that you directly experienced this past year.
So you work in a part of the country that is regularly affected by hurricanes down in the coastal area along the east coast.
And this past year was no exception when Wilmington, North Carolina took a direct hit from Hurricane Florence.
So first, let me just ask, how is the school generally doing in the aftermath?
Harts: So we're getting there.
It's good.
We were closed for four weeks.
I don't think anyone anticipated the amount of damage that would happen on campus or the disruption.
We all had a plan.
We all have a continuity of operations plan.
But when it actually happens and it looks a little different, it was a little jarring.
But we, our campus made a decision to salvage our semester, and so after the students were out for almost four weeks, we came back.
We added days to the semester.
We took away Reading Day and a Finals Day and Fall Break.
We added five minutes to every day, and then out of class work.
So the students were really busy trying to get everything done.
But they did a great job.
Graduation was this past weekend, and you could literally feel the collective sigh of relief from the faculty and staff, from the students.
Every graduation speaker, because we had multiple graduations, talked about, about that.
And so really I think we're getting it together.
This week trailers started to rise, and we're creating a temporary community of lab, modular labs for spring to offset our loss of our major science building.
 So you can start to see like new growth which is kind of neat.
But I think the neatest thing was the amazing resilience we saw not only in the students but the faculty and staff and in the community.
Both campus helping the community and the community helping campus when we both had times of need.
So it was a little dicey for a few weeks, maybe a few months, but it's coming together.

Lucey: Great.
I'm really glad to hear that because it was, I know, a major disruption to campus life.
So that segues into my second part of that question.
So we know that substance abuse rates can increase after a traumatic event such as a natural or a manmade disaster.
Did you get that, or do you get that sense among the students at your campus?
Harts: Yeah, so it was really interesting.
You know, it's too early to really have good data.
We're doing our biannual AOD survey in the spring, and so that's going to be really interesting to see.
We're adding a few questions about the fall to see if we can capture anything.
And we know from other campuses that have had semesters disrupted by a hurricane that you see potentially even more issues once students come back in the spring because they expect like everything's going to pop back to normal.
This was an oddity, but now it's going to be all perfect and wonderful, and it might not necessarily be.
So it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
But anecdotally absolutely.
We are, from our providers, both our mental health providers and our physical health providers, talked about students that they worked with that, who might have already used, whether it's alcohol or marijuana, and this is especially true on the marijuana side, that their use increased in both frequency and amounts, mostly as a way to cope or a way to relax.
I put that word in quotes, as they had interpreted as they had less time to do fun things so they need to make the time they do have free, maximize that.
One could absolutely argue that the long-term effects of that and the recovery from getting drunk tonight, tomorrow, how long that takes you to get back in the swing of things.
It might have been better to just go out and watch a movie or play a game.
But we definitely saw an increase in our mental health issues, and many of them increased hospital admissions, and many of them tied back to substances in mostly high use, you know, high amounts.
Students did tell us it was the most stressful semester they had, and so they wanted a quick fix.
We saw that at the Health Center.
Students would come much more quickly for an appointment.
So if we said, When did your sore throat or your cough start?
 They'd be like two hours ago as opposed to like two days ago.
And we saw that.
Then also hearing like I want a quick fix so I'm going to have a drink.
I want to go to sleep.
It's going to help me sleep.
Well, no, not really.
So I think anecdotally we definitely saw that.
It will be interesting to see how the data plays out, but I think students were doing anything they could to sort of cope with what they had, if that makes sense.

Lucey: No, absolutely.
And you said it again, it will be interesting when you administer your survey in the spring to see if the quantitative data aligns with what you're hearing even anecdotally with this.
So it just, you know, we know from the field that this happens.
This is sometimes a result of responding to a traumatic event, and so it's campuses are in the same situation.
And so glad; thank you for sharing that experience with us, and again we're really happy that the campus is back up and running maybe if not at full capacity but it's getting there.
And so we're really happy to hear that.
I'm going to pivot now to the next question which, you know, I mentioned this in talking about your bio.
So you recently, maybe unexpectedly but you recently became President Elect of the American College Health Association, which is a significant honor and a huge responsibility.
So with that, what is your vision for ACHA on issues related to drug abuse prevention among college students?
Harts: Sure, so I think ACHA has just such, such potential in helping to keep AOD prevention as a part of that conversation and narrative because we touch across all disciplines within college health, from mental health, pharmacy, nursing, providers, health promotion.
So we really do touch a lot of different disciplines, and so I think between some of the brochures that we have, some of the documents and publications like the Opioid Prescribing, Guidelines for College Health, the position statement on tobacco on college and university campuses, which talks about becoming a tobacco free campus and what are the, how might that work.
So we provide some resources for people who might be starting that conversation or needing some additional information.
We have a really active AOD coalition that provides an avenue for members to discuss these issues and bring questions to the group.
They always have a session at the national meeting which this year will be in Denver in May.
So that always ensures that there's going to be at least one session on AOD.
Looking back at the programs for years, there usually are many more, but it definitely allows us to keep that conversation going.
We want to keep contributing to the research base, and I think the ACHA which is about to launch its third version, has surveyed over 1.4 million students.
So that in collection, in combination with others like the CORE, monitoring the future, other surveys that are out there, absolutely gives us a sense of historically how have some of these numbers changed.
What are some of the impacts that we've made?
 What are some of the, you know, up and coming issues?
 And is there something that maybe we've been successful at?
 And I think, you know, we know that just because numbers may be going down in an area doesn't mean you want to stop focusing on that area because it will, it will and can come back.
So I think what ACHA has to offer is that national perspective, that real focus on research, the ability to contribute to the, to the research base and to keep the conversation going.
Lucey: Absolutely, and DEA is, and I know personally I'm excited for you in this role, but DEA certainly we've started to have some conversations like with Devon in the last six to nine months, Devon Jock of ACHA, about how ACHA and DEA can explore potential collaborative opportunities in the future.
And I think that between our professional relationship, you know, and personal relationship over the last 25-plus years, I think can help strengthen collaborative opportunities between DEA and ACHA going forward.
And we use, we turn to the National Collegiate Health Assessment frequently for data points that we include on the website in our publications, in our public facing materials.
 And so we rely on that instrument and the findings from it as part of our talking points in our presentations and such.
So we really appreciate that and we're really thankful that ACHA has that as a contribution to the research that's out there in the field.
Harts: I thinks what's often neat is that you may be the person on campus who's talking about AOD use or AOD prevention, and then your clinician at the health center might go to a national conference who hears someone else from another school talking about the same things you were talking about.
Suddenly that gets more credibility.
Suddenly that becomes, oh, it's not just something that's being talked about on our campus.
It's being talked about nationally.
Maybe I need to partner with that person.
Maybe I need to pay more attention.
Maybe I can play a part on my campus.
And so I think it really helps increase our reach.
Lucey: Absolutely, and you know, I think that you're going to bring great leadership skills to the organization so we look forward to seeing you in that role.
So as I close out our interview, I'll end with what's kind of become my typical fifth question for all of our interview guests and that's to ask you, What is it that you want to say to encourage your peers, the professionals working to prevent drug abuse among college students who are listening to this podcast?
Harts: I would just say follow your passion.
This is really important work.
It's not easy work, but we didn't get in this because it's easy.
You know, be that person who continues to infuse a prevention message everywhere that you can.
Be the voice for AOD prevention in places where people wouldn't expect it.
We; I'll be at a meeting and someone will talk about an event, and they'll have the expectation alcohol will be there.
And I'll suggest, well, have you thought of doing it alcohol-free?
 And it's like you just need to keep being that sort of little squeaky wheel.
Have we thought about adding a prevention component?
 Have we thought about our students or our faculty staff in recovery, whatever that is?
 Find out who your partners are, who your collaborators are.
Who on a day you feel like you're the only person doing this work, who can you call and say let's talk through an idea, or I'm just having a really tough time, or I had this great idea?
 And then be creative.
Use any avenue.
You know, this past year almost all of us I'm sure have been invited to many conversations about opioid use.
And while maybe that's not the biggest issue on your campus, what can you turn that into?
 By partnering with that group, you've now met a whole other group of people.
Every time I talk I'm always sure to include alcohol and marijuana issues in that conversation to say this is also something that we're working on, asking them how I can help them so that maybe one day they can help me.
But just really capitalize on opportunities and use all the resources we have.
You guys have done amazing work to put all these resources in one place for us.
We need to use them.

Lucey: Thank you, and that'll be a great ending as you plug and promote our website as we do.
We've been thrilled at the reception it's received over the last year and a half.
The sheer number of subscribers who are now subscribing to the email updates that we send out weekly to the website, it's just been a great feeling for us that it's so been well received in the field.
Katrin, this has been a joy, really just a great experience for me to interview you in this podcast.
I think you've given so much great advice for people, whether they're new the field or have been in the field for quite a while.
It's just been a really fun time so I thank you for that.
Harts: Thank you.

Lucey: And with that I want to thank our listeners for tuning into this episode of Prevention Profiles:Take 5.
And with that I will say thank you and have a great day.