Coalitions in Action—Engage Douglas County

“Engage Douglas County was formed in January 2019 in response to the Douglas County Community Health Plan,” said the coalition’s Director of Prevention and Leadership Chrissy Mayer. “The Community Health Plan identified a variety of data points indicating that substance use was an issue in the community. The Community Health Plan placed an emphasis on behavioral health and focused on moving from crisis as a norm to prevention and recovery as a practice. Within the plan, prioritizing prevention emerged as a top issue. Community partners were convened to begin assessing prevention needs in the county and building capacity to address identified challenges. Utilizing the Strategic Prevention Framework process, Engage Douglas County developed a strong prevention plan with diverse community partners and continues to seek new partnerships within the community and grow youth prevention efforts. The mission of Engage Douglas County is to mobilize and empower Douglas County to reduce substance misuse and promote mental health primarily among youth through action, education and collaboration. The primary focus of the coalition is youth under the age of 18. Our current priorities include substance use prevention, mental health promotion and suicide prevention. Engage Douglas County currently has several initiatives underway including the Good Behavior Game, Sources of Strength, Reward and Remind and safe medication disposal initiatives. Additionally, the coalition supports the Douglas County Youth Prevention Board (DCYPB). This is a youth-led organization with the goal to create positive change within our schools and communities. Our group consists of youth from four county high schools. DCYPB provides opportunities for youth to learn more about leadership development, substance use and misuse prevention, and mental health promotion. DCYPB has hosted virtual training for parents, participated in advocacy efforts, and conducted county-wide events focused on Red Ribbon Week, tobacco prevention and stopping the spread of COIVD-19.”

“Douglas County has nine townships, excluding Lawrence, which include the cities of Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton and 15 other smaller, unincorporated communities,” said Mayer. “A total of seven school districts serve the county. Lawrence, the county seat and most populous city is home to Haskell University (820 enrolled students, Data USA, 2016) and the University of Kansas (27,565 enrolled students, Data USA, 2016). Neighboring Baldwin City is home to Baker University (about 1,000 enrolled at the Baldwin City campus). The presence of these universities decreases the average age of the population and increases the underage population when compared to the rest of the state.

“Before COVID-19, this is where we stood: Social norms around substance use are very lax. Alcohol and marijuana are socially acceptable, and many community members lack awareness about the consequences associated with substance use. This trickeld down to our youth population and established a culture of substance use in the community. This culture of acceptance was exacerbated by a 2019 vote of the Lawrence City Commission to decrease the fine for marijuana possession to one dollar for the first and second offense. Kansas is currently one of four states that does not have a medical or recreational marijuana law, so there are often misconceptions about consequences associated with use. Reducing the fine increases public acceptance of marijuana use and does not bring awareness to the fact that a third charge will result in a felony offense that will greatly impact the future of those charged.”

“Since COVID-19, we’ve identified the following challenges: Mental health challenges of both youth and adults have increased significantly in the county. Emergency department data shows higher levels of admission for suicidal behavior. We know that substance use often accompanies suicide. In Kansas, toxicology reports show that alcohol was present in 35 percent of suicide deaths. We also know that the pandemic has caused increased alcohol rates. Our challenge is highlighting how alcohol and suicide are connected and encourage help seeking behavior for both youth and adults. We must do this in an environment that makes personally connecting with each other difficult to maintain physical safety related to COVID-19 transmission.”

“We have shifted to a virtual environment for both our youth and adult coalition meetings. Our youth coalition, Douglas County Youth Prevention Board, first started meeting in January 2020. They were able to have two in person meetings before our world changed. This group has been resilient and has actually grown in membership throughout 2020! Our sponsors for this group have done an amazing job connecting with youth and helping them feel supported and engaged throughout the weirdness of 2020. They have sponsored parent workshops highlighting ways to connect with your kids during COVID and offered a variety of digital scavenger hunt opportunities (Red Ribbon Week, COVID awareness) and wellness challenges through their Instagram account - https://www.instagram.com/dcypb/

“Our adult coalition, Engage Douglas County, shifted to virtual meetings as well and maintained high engagement. We utilized breakout rooms to allow for small group conversation and were able to feature guest speakers who continued to implement programming virtually throughout the pandemic.”

“Additionally, we completed parent and youth surveys to assess substance use and mental health needs in the community. We had more than 400 youth and 1,000 parents complete the online survey. We partnered with local coffee shops to promote the survey to parents and provided a certificate redeemable for a drink to the first 200 parents completing the survey. The results of the survey will be used to help guide our initiatives and seek active engagement from other community partners.”

“The growth of our youth prevention board during the pandemic has been great. Youth are connecting with each other and encouraging others to get involved. Adult sponsors for this group have done an excellent job providing guidance and letting the youth focus on projects that are important to them.”

“Finally, we’ve experienced success getting social media accounts and our coalition website functional. We’ve implemented a few social media campaigns that have helped raise awareness in the community and encourage engagement.”

“One of our initial initiatives in 2019 was to reduce the incidence of vaping among youth in our community. During focus groups (14 focus groups, 122 youth), youth reported that vaping was the primary issue among their peers. Schools also reported challenges with vaping at school. Engage Douglas County developed rack cards for youth, parents and educators focused on substance use, with an emphasis on vaping. We also did some targeted messaging for coaches and extra-curricular sponsors because youth reported that coaches are often who they rely on for support. We implemented a social media campaign utilizing #DGCOPreventionProject. Coalition partners received a social media guide for the campaign which saturated the Douglas County market.”

“Engaging multiple community partners is key to success. Identifying unusual voice in the community to help guide the work and reach new populations is critical for system-level change. Providing opportunities for education with our young people and training them on advocacy skills has been essential in generating excitement and urgency for prevention work in the community. Additionally, gaining buy-in from school superintendents has been crucial to improving access to data to drive prevention decisions. We had not had significant participation in our youth behavioral health survey for several years. In 2020, we had excellent county-level data due to the collaboration with our schools.”

“We sent a team to the CADCA Forum in February 2019 and 2020 and are looking forward to Mid-Year. Our priorities during these two previous events have been an emphasis on youth engagement in prevention work. We spend a lot of time talking to adults about how to interact with youth and need to improve our efforts to train and engage youth in this effort. We made great strides in 2020 and are focused on moving to higher levels of engagement throughout the county. We hope that our youth will connect with other youth and see the power that young people have to change community norms!”

“Coalition work in communities can be slow, but when you find the right connections things can take off. Be open to engaging new partners in your work and identify opportunities to support other community groups. You never know where connections may be found to enhance your mission!”