By Hannah Heimbuch
When we’re talking about data on alcohol, said Esther Hammerschlag, most of the time we’re using it to show how large a problem we have. It’s used to illustrate the need for a program or funding to fight significant alcohol abuse, a widespread issue in Homer and Alaska at large.
But there’s another way to read the numbers.
“This model actually uses the data to show the good choices that people are making in the community,” she said.
Hammerschlag is the Project Director for the Homer Prevention Project, a collaborative working group geared toward curbing alcohol abuse in adults and youth in Homer. This month, HPP is launching a positive community norms campaign, inundating Homer with messages about the good trends that exist around alcohol use, namely moderation.
Because alongside real and serious trends of substance abuse, she said, exist equally lasting trends of responsible alcohol use or sobriety.
One of the first messages that the community can expect to see and hear — in radio ads and flyers and locally printed coffee cups, among others — is a statistic about adult drinking. In the community survey HPP conducted to support the community norms campaign, they discovered that most adults in Homer thought that most adults engaged in binge drinking.
But the actual results showed a different reality, revealing that 78 percent of Homer area adults have two or fewer drinks on the days that they drink alcohol.
The campaign attempts to curb substance abuse by shifting focus to that positive community norm, rather than the negative trends, Hammerschlag said.
“By giving out accurate date about what people are actually doing,” she said, “you’ll start to shift the perception in the community.”
That’s not to say that the problems aren’t still there, she said, and it’s far from the only way HPP is approaching prevention, but it reminds Homer that healthy habits are also alive and well.
“People tend to do what they think most people are doing,” Hammerschlag said. The hope is that, if people begin to understand that the norm is moderation, Homer will see a behavior shift in its existing alcohol use.
This alternative approach to prevention is a great companion to the major intervention work already underway in Homer, said HPP Implementation Contractor Rachel Romberg. The focus on the positive, the broad goal to shift the culture away from assumptions about binge drinking, she said, has the potential to bring positive change to Homer in a new way.
“I think it gives us a chance to celebrate what’s going well,” she said.
In the beginning, Romberg said, she had questions about how this approach would affect those who were living with a drinking problem, alienating them further from society.
“Is this going to take away from the people who are struggling with a very serious and real addiction?” she asked. “But I was able to reconcile that. Because this is also true. It compliments (intervention.)”
Celebrating the positives that sustain a strong, healthy community will hopefully support both those already using moderation, and those who aren’t.
“We can actually be better supports to people struggling with addiction,” she said. “And it goes a long way toward breaking the silence.”
Much like domestic violence issues or childhood trauma, Romberg said, problems with alcohol breed in the silence surrounding it. An open discussion about both the serious issues of alcohol abuse, and the successes of healthy choices, moves the entire community toward a healthier future.
The positive community norms strategy is a model developed at Montana State University, where a campaign to curb drunk driving used data of positive choices to change behavior. They saw success with that project, Hammerschlag said, and the strategy is now being applied to complex social issues around the country.
While the preparation for such a campaign is significant, she said, its goals and effectiveness can also be significant.
“The end result that we’re seeing is that we’re starting to launch things in the community that are really well planned out and backed up by data,” she said.
After diligent data collection and analyzation, and testing of potential messages, the community norms campaign is underway. A message began playing at the movie theater last weekend, and by early May coffee cups and flyers will go out to establishments and message boards around town. News advertisements, banners and other mediums will follow.
Once this initial message has time to circulate, Hammerschlag said, it will be time to release more positive information, eventually shifting the focus to positive teen norms.
The focus started with adults, she said, partly because that was the strong data they had complete at the time, and because problems in the youth community are tied directly to the habits of the adults around them.
“It’s also kind of a refreshing approach to say hey, let’s look at our own numbers as adults,” Romberg said. “What kind of examples are they getting from our actions?”
For more information, visit homerfacts.com, or homerpreventionproject.org.
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