Families Moving Forward reduces substance abuse in New Mexico schools

In 2021, nearly one third of high school students reported using alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit substances.1 Deaths from drug overdose have nearly doubled among young people in the United States. The increase in drug overdose deaths among young people spans all racial and ethic groups, and Hispanic youth account for a disproportionate share of overdose deaths.

Substance use disorder often co-occurs with another behavioral disorder, and while nearly one in five children in the United State has a behavioral disorder, only 20% of those children receive treatment from a specialized mental health care provider.2,3

Northern Santa Fe and southern Rio Arriba counties report some of the highest rates of unintentional overdose deaths and alcohol related deaths among counties in New Mexico.4 Additionally, students in area high schools report higher rates of drinking, smoking/vaping and illegal drug use. Substance use challenges disproportionately impact the area’s Hispanic residents, who experienced the highest rates of drug related deaths per 100,000 people in Rio Arriba county.

Early interventions can prevent the onset of substance use disorder.5 UnitedHealthcare is collaborating with the National Latino Behavioral Health Association to bring substance use prevention and mental health curriculum to students in Sante Fe and Rio Arriba counties.

The National Latino Behavioral Health Association (NLBHA) provides national leadership on mental health and substance abuse concerns that impact the Latino community. Their multi-faceted approach to substance use disorder (SUD) prevention is aimed at decreasing unhealthy behaviors and increasing protective factors for youth by utilizing a data-driven, community participatory Strategic Prevention Framework. The Framework is built on community participation, collaboration and local expertise. Through a $60,000 grant from UnitedHealthcare Community & State and Optum, NLBHA is bringing this program to schools and youth in northern New Mexico.

Connecting Our Voices seeks to address the underlying challenges that affect substance use disorder, as well as behavioral health disparities among these communities. Young Latino people with a major depressive episode are less likely to receive treatment, and rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts among young Latinos have increased over the last decade.6 Without access to treatment, this can create a higher risk for more severe and persistent mental health conditions.7 Barriers to care such as language barriers, lack of health insurance or knowledge about how to navigate the health care system, and cultural stigma all contribute to disparities in access and outcomes.

The program utilizes an evidence-based, culturally-appropriate curriculum Familia Adelante,  adapted for northern New Mexico and called Families Moving Forward. The goals of the curriculum are to reduce substance use disorder, reduce the negative effects of stress, provide students with coping skills, and decrease the risk of future substance abuse and behavioral health challenges. The curriculum emphasizes strengthening cultural identity and affirming each person’s values, beliefs, customs and resiliency.

Studies on the Familia Adelante program have demonstrated its effectiveness, including an increase in the perception of harm caused by substance use and reduction in rates of illicit drug use within 30 days of completing the program.8 The curriculum was found to be particularly effective among families with parents and children who have recently immigrated to the United States, as it increased family support and reduced acculturation stress.

The program is active among students ages 10-14 in elementary and middle schools in northern New Mexico. Over 11 sessions, facilitators and students discuss drivers of mental health and stress, including stress from school, friends and family, and stress from discrimination or bullying students may face. Students are also educated on substance use disorder and associated trauma.  Students are provided a safe space to discuss sources of stress and the challenges that they experience in school, within their families and communities.

The program has seen a reduction in substance use. According to NLBHA, 8.6% of students reported using electronic vapor products at the beginning of the program. In a survey following the completion of the program, this figure was reduced to 4.5%. Non-prescription opioid use and use of other illegal drugs measured at 4.3% at baseline, and at 0% after the program was completed.

In addition, youth between 16 and 20 years old can participate in a paid internship program to implement strategies aimed to impact policy and community norms related to the prevention of underage drinking and substance use disorder, suicide, and behavioral health related factors. Participants receive training to develop skills to advocate for their needs and those of their community, implementing prevention strategies and developing leadership skills.

By supporting the Connecting Our Voices program, UnitedHealthcare strives to change the conversation around mental health and substance use disorder, and to make mental health care more accessible, culturally appropriate and responsive to the unique needs of the New Mexico community.

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