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WVU’s new prevention program aims to support at-risk youth through critical development years



Research shows prevention programs are effective at reducing risk of substance use and addiction, and the prevalence of drug use increases rapidly during adolescence and the transition to young adulthood. To support this population through these critical development years, West Virginia University has launched Regional Transition Navigator services.

Under the guidance of Lesley Cottrell, director of the Center for Excellence in Disabilities and professor in the Schools of Medicine and Public Health, the program is funded by a $432,000 award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The new program is designed to connect West Virginia’s youth and young adults, ages 14-25, who are experiencing, have experienced or are at risk of experiencing serious emotional disturbance, mental illness and/or substance use disorders with needed resources. Currently, an emphasis is placed on those experiencing homelessness, aging out of foster care or juvenile detention, or at risk for human trafficking.

There are many biological and environmental factors that can lead to drug use, but no single factor can predict whether an individual will become addicted.

Addiction is an equal opportunity opponent. Lives are lived not in blacks and whites, but in shades of gray. Our long-term desired outcomes are to help folks into better situations than the ones they are currently in, no matter what that situation might be.”


Sam Wilkinson, program manager

Wilkinson is one of six navigators across the state in locations including Barboursville, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Mount Hope and Oak Hill. The team works with participants in their communities to identify needs, assess skills levels and develop a network of support and services to improve their health outcomes as they gain independence and transition into adulthood.

“The program aims to be as malleable as possible when working with its clients,” Wilkinson explained. “What works for one client will not necessarily work for another, and our goal is maximized flexibility that allows us to respond to individual needs. As a result, response is tailored on a case-by-case, or perhaps more accurately, a situation-by-situation basis. Our goal is working to solve the immediate challenges as part of a longer-term strategy of teaching problem-solving skills useful throughout one’s life.”

Regional Transition Navigator team members will connect participants with resources for housing, transportation, utilities, food, violence prevention and support, education, health care, medication, communication skills to advocate for themselves, life skills and knowing who to contact for help depending on their individual circumstance.

To enroll, individuals can be referred to the program by anyone – including themselves.

“We rely upon those who have an awareness and knowledge of their own communities – health care professionals, front-line staffers, social workers, counselors, teachers, coaches – and our partners throughout the state,” Wilkinson said. “We have enrolled roughly 30 participants and would like to connect with more.

“Reaching younger folks can serve as an intervention before decision-making calcifies into bone-deep habits,” Wilkinson said. “We want to do supportive work that helps individuals choose healthier paths. Through the provision of direct, personalized connection, we are hopeful to benefit both them and their communities.”



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