Grant Permits Professor to Research Effects of Peer-enhanced Therapy

Douglas Smith, professor in the School of Social Work, received a $700,000 grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to research new peer-enhanced substance abuse therapy for young adults age 18 to 25.

Normally geared toward either juveniles, youth under 18, or adults 18 and over, substance abuse therapies rarely address the category of young adults. Unlike regular therapies, the grant Smith received will incorporate peers, friends or significant others of the patient to help them recover from substance abuse.

The goal, through using peer-enhanced therapy, is to have someone who can act as a support role for the patient.

“It’s not easy to get someone’s friend involved,” Smith said about the current treatment system. “We don’t think about social networks in our medical system.”

In addition to the peer-enhanced therapy, Smith will incorporate some cognitive behavioral therapy methods into the treatment. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the patient will discuss what they normally do right before they abuse a drug. If a therapist knows the patient’s typical using schedule, they can work with the peer and try to plan other events besides using.

Alcohol and marijuana are the most common drugs abused by young adults in the United States, Smith said. If “(we) tip the balance between sobriety being more fun than drinking, it’s more likely that they’ll taper back on drinking and drug abuse.”

The grant will be used to develop intervention protocol over the next few months and then fund a small local study in conjunction with the Prairie Center Health Systems, a nonprofit agency that provides treatment for substance abuse in Urbana and Champaign, as well as other off-site locations.

If peer-based treatment works in a nonprofit agency, it could be adapted for a university setting, maybe using the friend groups found in sororities and fraternities, Smith said. The peer role does not exclude friends or significant others who do drink or use drugs, but Smith hopes there might be a ripple effect by using this therapy in larger groups. By putting someone in a supporting role, that person may also decrease his or her alcohol usage, Smith added.

Bruce Suardini, CEO of The Prairie Center in Urbana, said this type of therapy gives them a different approach to getting the targeted population to seek treatment. Instead of waiting for something, such as law enforcement, to send the individual to therapy, a friend can direct him or her to the program and can attempt to help in recovery, Suardini said.

According to Michael Dennis, senior research psychologist and director of the Global Appraisal of Individual Needs Coordinating Center, this new treatment option does very well in clinical trials and is one of the best for reducing not only substance abuse problems, but also emotional problems.

Jeff Evans, department manager at Carle Addiction Recovery Center, said the two types of therapies they use to combat substance abuse are motivational therapy, which helps patients define the problem themselves and move towards something positive, and cognitive behavior therapy, which tries to help patients realize that their thinking is irrational and how to change it.

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