High-Risk Adolescents have an Advocate in Alemagno
Ask Dean Sonia Alemagno to name her research passion, and you won’t wait a millisecond for the answer: substance abuse in society’s most vulnerable adolescents who are also at high risk for mental illness, homelessness and a host of other problems. Despite the dean’s jam-packed schedule leading the College of Public Health, Alemagno makes time to find answers for prevention and intervention.
A fitting example is her recent leadership of a study to develop and implement the Ohio Adolescent Drug Use Forecasting System. This tool will monitor and report on emerging adolescent drug-use trends, to inform prevention and intervention programs and policies. “The Columbus Foundation funded a pilot study for central Ohio. With a new grant from the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, we’ll be gathering data throughout the state from adolescents, young adults and representatives from secondary education, law enforcement and treatment agencies,” Alemagno explains.
Alemagno started her research career in HIV/AIDs prevention in the mid-1980s, and early investigations also concerned injected drug use and suicide prevention. Later work evolved to encompass substance abuse, addiction, homelessness and incarceration, and her career funding is in excess of $5 million. “Through the years, it all hangs together,” she explains. “If you start doing one thing, you realize that the needs of young people are so interrelated and so great.”
“For instance, you can’t do just treatment work in high-risk adolescent and young adult populations,” Alemagno explains. “Dual diagnosis of substance abuse and mental illness often emerges in late adolescence. Further, these populations have a much greater chance of being homeless or runaways,” she advises. “When looking at drug use, substance abuse and addiction, it’s impossible not to understand the need for a safe place to live, educational and occupational help and intervention for sex abuse or violence,” the dean says.
“There are a lot of adolescents in these circumstances, and no one likes to hear about it,” she declares. “These kids have a life on the streets, in shelters, in juvenile detention or jail. They are pushed out by their families, and they are expelled from school or drop out. What should we be doing for prevention and intervention, and how can we do it sooner? How can we prevent those in the juvenile justice system from just transferring into the criminal justice system when they reach adulthood?” she asks.
To help attack the homelessness issue, Alemagno is working on a study to evaluate a model program for the chronically homeless with substance abuse or mental health issues, Recovery & Empowerment Achieved with Community & Housing (REACH). The project is sponsored by the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Stark County, funded by the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). In another project for the Stark mental health agency, Alemagno is involved in a gambling addiction needs assessment and envisions expanding the study to look more closely at gambling risk of college students.
The dean observes that her line of research isn’t easy. “There are lots of legal, confidentiality and consent issues. For example, there typically are no parents around to give consent for research participation for adolescents. In addition, it can be hard to track adolescents and young adults for follow-up interviews. It’s grown easier in recent years with Facebook, e-mails and cell phones. Early on, we drove around in a van looking for the kids. Today, we use social media and e-mail. Most homeless adolescents have a cell phone and actually engage with the Internet every day,” reveals Alemagno, who has published about using these new tools to follow and try to help at-risk adolescents.
Alemagno laments that she “doesn’t have as much time to fight at the moment,” but vows to return with full force when her time as dean eventually concludes. “There’s a lot of effort going toward drug use prevention in the schools – the vast majority of help for adolescents is up this avenue,” she says. “But my concern is for those not connected with family and schools. There is not a good solution today in American society and, regrettably, the problems follow adolescents into adulthood.”