Can the church or spirituality prevent substance abuse among young people?

In order to explore this question, the Missouri Institute of Mental Health asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Substance Abuse Prevention for a grant. The federal agency responded by funding the three-year study--the only faith-based project among 21 grants--to the tune of $1.1 million.

The Missouri Institute teamed up with three predominantly African-American congregations in the St. Louis area. "Our hypothesis is that by providing substance abuse prevention programs in a faith-based setting, and then supplementing that with parent training, we will be able to see further reductions, or more prevention, of substance abuse in the youth," says Daphne Walker-Thoth, principal project investigator for the Institute.

"Spirituality is emerging in the field of prevention as one of the factors that seems to help protect young people from substance abuse," Walker-Thoth adds. "This initiative will explore the influence of spirituality on substance use and investigate the effects of two prevention programs on African-American youth."

The study is called "Strengthening Family Connections" and will target young people 10-13 years old and their parents. Three churches were selected to participate. Each has a key role and will help recruit the 300 youths and 300 parents--only one child and one parent per family can participate--who will take part in the study.

Scruggs Memorial Church will act as the control group. It will simply continue to offer its current youth programs. Young people meet every other Sunday and alternately go on cultural field trips or participate in workshops on topics that range from peer pressure, faith, and drugs and other substances. The other two churches will implement already recognized prevention programs.

West End Mount Carmel Full Gospel Baptist Church will offer Dr. Gilbert J. Botvin's Life Skills Training. Life Skills teaches young people how to build self-esteem, resist advertising pressure, manage anxiety, communicate effectively, develop relationships, and assert their rights. The training will take place this summer in a series of day camps that will last a month.

While the Life Skills program has been used in school settings, the Institute wants to measure its effectiveness in a faith-based setting. The summer camps will include discussions about God in an attempt to help kids understand their connection to Him. Spirituality will be taught, enhanced, and encouraged. Additionally, prayer, a component that has not been part of the school-based models, will be a part of the camp experience.

"They'll be learning about prayer, learning about something bigger than themselves," says Walker-Thoth. "They won't be praying to prevent substance abuse, but just the act of praying and learning how to become a more spiritually aware person is what we think will protect them," she adds.

First Baptist Church of Webster Groves will also offer "Life Skills" to youth this summer; for parents, Ted Strader's Creating Lasting Family Connections will be offered. The latter helps parents develop positive communication with their children. Refresher sessions will be held for both courses the following summer.

The Rev. John D. Johnson, senior pastor at Scruggs Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, was eager to have his church take part. "I'm excited about it because it provides an invitation from the academic and scientific community to the faith community" to work together. "I believe the church is the oldest healing agency, the oldest health-care facility," he adds.

The Institute believes the study could be applied to any religious group, but because churches hold a central place in the African-American community, researchers wanted to start with there.

"There are some churches where people are shunned if they have a substance abuse problem." says Walker-Thoth. "But the three churches that were selected to participate have been known to be compassionate to people who have abuse problems."

Johnson agrees. "I feel it's something we need to actively pursue, because it's an issue that for a long time the church has shied away from," he says.

Youths and parents don't have to belong to any of the three churches to participate. Rhonda Johnson lives in north St. Louis and is a member of another church, but she brought her 11-year-old daughter, Raisha, to a recent informational meeting about the study.

"We're living in the city," Johnson says. "I just want Raisha to be aware of what's going on in the neighborhood and in her school." She is glad her daughter will have the opportunity to learn more about substance abuse in a church setting. "It's just good to have it in a church, because it's putting God first," Rhonda Johnson says

The study will use surveys to measure the attitudes of parents and children about substances and spirituality before the camps begin, immediately after the camps conclude, and then again six months later. The confidential questionnaires are extensive and will take about two hours to complete each time. Youths will receive $5 and parents $15 each time they complete a set of surveys. The third year of the study will be devoted to analyzing the data.

Walker-Thoth believes the program will work. In fact, she hypothesizes that First Baptist, which will offer both the youth and the parents programs, will see a higher rate of prevention than the other two churches.

"A lot of substance abusers say that they have a hole in their life, that they feel empty," Walker-Thoth says. "I work with a rabbi who says it's a spiritual void, and they try to fill that void with substances. Spirituality can go in there and do the same things for them as they the think the substances are doing, but without the negative consequences."

The Institute, a department of the School of Medicine of the University of Missouri-Columbia, is located in St. Louis and is known for conducting research, studying ethics and public policy, and providing training. A St. Louis coalition called Committed Caring Faith Communities will also provide staff support and other resources during the study.
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