The Paterson Prevention project

PI: Ijeoma Opara, PhD, MSW, MPH

Funding Source: National Institutes of Health, Office of the Director

Project Summary: Urban youth in the United States are more likely to be exposed to licit and illicit substances, experience higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms, and live in under-resourced areas. Such a disparity leaves urban youth at risk of poorer health outcomes than their counterparts. Since youth substance use is on the rise, it is imperative for innovative methods to be utilized in order to tackle this complex issue. The association between substance use, neighborhood characteristics, and mental health outcomes in youth is emerging in the literature yet disparities continue to impact youth in urban communities. Paterson, New Jersey is a northeastern, urban community which has one the highest rates of substance abuse in the nation. Youth living in Paterson are overly exposed to drug use in their neighborhoods and have extreme access to substances, leaving them more at risk to initiate use at earlier ages and more likely to become dependent into adulthood.  My research in this community has shown that neighborhood and community level characteristics, in addition to depressive and anxiety symptoms among youth, can be key facilitators to early substance use. Previous research has overwhelmingly placed the blame on individuals, particularly youth, as opposed to acknowledging the systemic structures and the environmental context in which youth are nested. Although substance use prevention interventions exist, youth who are the most vulnerable and often the hardest to reach, are not engaged in prevention interventions or connected to resources. In order to reach this population, I propose to use an innovative method, venue-based sampling, to recruit at-risk youth. The research addresses these specific aims: 

Aim 1: To examine the association between neighborhood characteristics, substance use, and mental health symptoms among Paterson youth using quantitative and qualitative methods. Aim 2: Use findings from Aim 1 to inform the adaptation of a community-based and evidence-based substance use prevention intervention for Paterson youth. Aim 3: Pilot the intervention on a sample of Paterson youth. We hypothesize that there will be significant differences in risk and protective factors by race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status among Paterson youth. 

Acknowledgments: This study is supported by the National Institutes of Health Director's Early Independence Award (DP5OD029636)

Participant Recruitment Anticipated to Begin: Summer 2021

The Dreamer Girls Project

Development of an HIV/AIDS, STI, and Substance Use Prevention Intervention for Black girls

Pilot Study Principal Investigator: Ijeoma Opara, PhD, MSW, MPH

Funding Source: National Institute of Mental Health 

This pilot study aims to  adapt a racial and gender specific evidence-based HIV/AIDS and substance use prevention program called the “The Dreamer Girls Project (TGP)” for urban Black girls in Paterson, NJ. The program will be designed for girls who identify as English-speaking Black or African American and are between the ages of 14-18 years old. The Dreamer Girls Project will be an adaptation of the evidence-based HIV/AIDS prevention intervention, “SIHLE (Sisters Informing Healthy Living and Empowering)” and will be adapted to incorporate components of drug prevention. The goal of the The Dreamer Girls Project (TGP) will be to a) increase positive and protective sexual practices (e.g., condom use, PrEP) and psychosocial skills (HIV knowledge, self-efficacy among Black adolescent girls in Paterson and b) to increase knowledge about licit and illicit substances and their relationship with STI and HIV/AIDS.  Aim 1. Understand what environmental and socio-cultural factors Black adolescent girls prefer in a successful HIV and substance use prevention program. Aim 2. Adapt the SIHLE intervention, “The Dreamers Girls Project” for the target population.

Aim 3. Implement, pilot, and assess feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary changes in outcomes for “The Dreamer Girls Project”on 5-10 Black adolescent girls. This study has the potential to provide new information about strengths-based approaches to HIV/AIDS and substance use prevention for urban Black girls between the ages of 14-18 years old. 

Acknowledgements: This pilot study is funded by a NIMH (R25-MH087217) housed at Yale University School of Public Health (PI: Dr. Trace Kershaw). Dr. Opara's Pilot Study Mentor is the founding director of the REIDS program, Dr. Barbara Guthrie

Participant recruitment anticipated to begin: Spring 2021

Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Substance Use

Co-PI: Ijeoma Opara, PhD,MSW, MPH

PI: Sana Malik, PhD

Funding source: SUNY Faculty Seed COVID-19 Rapid Grant


While social distancing is a necessary public health measure to control disease spread in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it can lead to psychological, behavioral, and social problems.  Expected increases in loneliness, defined as the discrepancy in desired and achieved social relationships, are further associated with negative health outcomes among adults, including the onset of depression, cardiovascular disease, early mortality, and risky health behaviors including substance use.  Using a survey of young adults between the ages of 18-35 years old in New York, this study aims to 1. measure the impact of social isolation, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has on mental health and substance use outcomes;  2.  Examine risk and protective factors associated with mental health and substance use outcomes, with a focus on health disparities and access issues in vulnerable populations;  and 3.  Develop  effective interventions to reduce the burden of mental health and substance use during a period of social isolation.

Participant recruitment: ACTIVE and ONGOING 

Are you between the ages of 18 years-35 years old and live in NY? If so, Click here to participate in our survey!