Teens take the lead in preventing rural opioid addiction, with help from WSU mentors

Teens display opioid poster
Andrea and Michelle, teen interns with WSU’s Youth Advocates for Health program in Yakima County, post an informative an poster on opioids this spring. Teens in Yakima, Spokane, and Clallam counties learned and shared information with their communities through Take-PART—(Participatory Action Research with Teens), launched by WSU’s Center for Rural Opioid Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery (CROP+TR).

Teens in Washington’s Yakima, Spokane, and Clallam Counties helped peers and neighbors understand the opioid crisis as part of a Washington State University-led outreach project.

This year, youth served as Take-PART Teen Interns, learning about opioid misuse prevention and education.

Take-PART—the acronym is short for Participatory Action Research with Teens—was launched by WSU’s Center for Rural Opioid Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery (CROP+TR), with support from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Rural counties are more impacted by opioid addiction than urban areas, and CROP+TR’s mission is to help these Washington communities learn about and recover from the epidemic. Youth are an important element of that effort, and the Center implemented Take-PART to build young people’s abilities to investigate, engage with others, and share discoveries with their communities.

Designed for teens ages 14-18, the program is offered through Youth Advocates for Health (YA4-H!), a positive youth development initiative of WSU Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program.

“We’re engaging teens as agents of change in their communities,” said Elizabeth Weybright, co-director of CROP+TR and current director of Extension’s Youth and Families Program Unit. “Many teens have a personal connection. They chose to take part because either they, or their friends and relatives, have been impacted by the opioid epidemic.”

Portrait-style photo of Elizabeth Weybright.
Elizabeth Weybright

Others joined Take-PART with little to no knowledge of the opioid epidemic but a desire to help their community.

Through Take-PART, more than a dozen teens in Yakima County’s YA4-H! chapter learned about the science of addiction, withdrawal, and prevention, along with data collection and research techniques.

Armed with that information, Yakima teens interviewed experts in their community, including a chemical dependency counselor, an emergency room doctor, an emergency first responder, and a person in recovery from addiction.

“They got to learn first-hand from people who are in it,” said Alison White, program mentor and 4-H Youth Development Specialist. “It deepened the why, and the wow.”

Alison White
Alison White.

Yakima interns teamed up to launch an outreach campaign, making podcasts, writing stories, and running a social media takeover aimed at an online teen audience. Others created posters for display at local high schools and pharmacies, sharing the warnings and realities of addiction.

Growing leadership, empathy

In Spokane County, interns held a panel discussion with experts and responders, a WSU pharmacy student among them. Teen teams created traveling educational materials, including an interactive Medicine Cabinet, to displat at community events or school classes, and fundraised for treatment programs for Spokane’s homeless population.

Take-PART brought teens with different backgrounds, beliefs, and family structures together to address the crisis, said Jennifer Fees, 4-H Nutrition and Healthy Living Educator for Spokane County Extension.

“Having a team who holds similar values and works toward the same objectives makes you feel accepted, important, and a part of the community,” she said. Teens also learned to work with trusted adult mentors, an important part of the 4-H experience.

“This internship opened the door for some teens who might be considered ‘at-risk,’” Fees said. “It gave them a group of mentors, connected them with other students who are also interested in helping others and doing good within the community, and provided a solid foundation.

Teen hanging poster
YA-4H! member Michelle hangs a poster informing her community about opioid risks. Teen participants in Take-PART built skills in learning, leadership, and outreach.

“These teens will one day be leaders of our society,” she added. “They’ll be able to take what they’ve learned to do bigger and better things.”

“People turn a blind eye to addiction,” said Michelle, a Yakima YA4-H! member. “They feel they can’t help because they don’t know how. Making people aware is the most impactful way to help others.”

“I never realized how hard recovery is,” added fellow Yakima teen Jazzell. “This project helped us all realize that this is not a simple issue—it’s extremely complicated. I’m going to keep doing my part by helping people learn be more compassionate and give that helping hand.”

CROP+TR and WSU Extension’s 4-H program will use lessons learned from the project to help more teen groups and partner organizations develop their own youth outreach projects.

“Teens can do big things,” White said. “They can care about something and then do something about it. That’s empowerment.”

  • Learn more about Take-PART and WSU’s Youth Participatory Action Research at the CROP+TR website.