As the opioid crisis grows more deadly nationwide, Colorado State University researchers are using $1.4 million in federal grants to help adolescents avert drug experimentation by providing prevention programming for youth and their families in rural communities statewide.

In May, the first group of participants began meeting with trained facilitators as part of a seven-week prevention course for parents and children ages 10 to 14. The sessions represent one of three aspects of Strengthening Families in Colorado, a program that targets opioid abuse and is led by CSU’s Prevention Research Center and CSU Extension in collaboration with other organizations working to prevent drug misuse.

The first session began in Fort Morgan, in northeastern Colorado, with another starting this month in La Junta, in the southeastern part of the state. The sessions will extend this fall in Alamosa, Sterling, the San Luis Valley, and Grand Junction. The sites were selected to provide programming in rural regions across the state.

The Strengthening Families Program aligns with a community-based approach recommended by the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force as a successful strategy for fighting opioid abuse.

The CSU project has trained professionals – including CSU Extension agents, teachers, mental-health professionals, and family therapists – to deliver prevention programming in communities where they live and work, a strategy meant to mobilize local expertise and concern to address a mounting national crisis.

In 2017, there were 578 opioid-related overdose deaths in Colorado, resulting from abuse of prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opioids, chiefly fentanyl, according to the most recent overview data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That was a rate of 10 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to a national average of nearly 15 deaths per 100,000 people. Opioid deaths are the most acute representation of the crisis, a barometer of widespread opioid misuse that often has ruinous effects for individuals and families.

While the opioid crisis in Colorado generally is not as pronounced as it is in some other states, over-dose deaths have climbed sharply in the state in recent years; that follows an alarming nationwide trend, in which more than 47,600 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017 alone, representing more than two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The epidemic has been especially difficult in many rural communities.

In addition to substance abuse prevention sessions for adolescents and their families, the Strengthening Families Program includes a campaign that uses social media and other outlets to change youth perceptions and attitudes about substance use, including the incorrect notion that “everybody’s doing it.” The program also involves a broad public-health campaign about the causes and consequences of opioid use.