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New alcohol, drug awareness app lets users practice talking to an at-risk friend or loved one

December 27, 2017 Updated: December 28, 2017 at 11:05 am
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A new awareness campaign led by a Denver nonprofit and paid for by Colorado's marijuana tax cash fund aims to encourage adults in the land of microbrews and legal marijuana to take a hard look at their habits.

For those concerned about a friend or loved one, the "One Degree, Shift the Influence" campaign also has advice - in the form of an interactive, app-based simulation - on how to broach a topic that can be especially daunting when legal and social taboos don't necessarily have one's back.

The conversation is a complex and nuanced one at every level.

"We're not trying to paint alcohol as a terrible thing," said Carolyn Swenson, manager of training and consultation for Peer Assistance Services Inc., the campaign's sponsor. "We recognize it's here; it's a part of our economy, our tourism and lifestyle. We just want people to recognize that there are significant negatives and they are not just significant for individuals, but for the whole society."

As recently as 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that excessive alcohol use had an annual economic impact of $250 billion, or about $2.05 per drink consumed in the U.S. Though recent federal data notes a slight decline in alcohol use among all age groups, studies also have shown that 1 in 4 Americans drinks at a level that can impact personal and family health, workplace productivity and social stability.

"Despite all the attention to opioids - which is a huge problem in our country - alcohol is still absolutely our number one substance abuse problem," said Swenson, who trains nursing students around the state, including those at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Beth El College of Nursing, on how to talk about patients about alcohol and drugs.

"We've been working for over 10 years to try to promote earlier intervention for alcohol and drug problems, but this is the first time we've had the chance to do this widespread companion campaign," Swenson said. "To the best of my knowledge, this campaign is definitely a new take on reaching out to the public and getting people to consider, how much are they really drinking?"

The new campaign's recommendations for "healthy" drinking are in line with those of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: up to one drink per day for women and two for men. Most people who drink "too much," however, don't have what's clinically considered a serious alcohol use disorder - yet.

"People tend to drink in ways that are similar to their peer group, and they think 'Well, it can't be a problem because we're all drinking the same amount.' But there can be short- and long-term consequences that aren't glaringly obvious at first" said Swenson. "If you do chose to drink, regularly or on occasion, recognize what's considered lower risk and think about the reasons to drink less for your own health. There are benefits to small changes."

Equipped with the right tools, friends and family can help initiate those small changes. That's where the interactive campaign component comes in.

The app lets users walk through conversations with two virtual humans whose escalating habits are putting them at risk. Jordan, a young man in his 20s, is saving money so he can go back to school, but his partying is getting in the way of his goals. Donna, who is in her 40s, is going through a divorce and has started drinking more in the evenings to deal with her stress.

"The conversations let the general public practice bringing up the topic of alcohol or marijuana, in a friendly conversation with someone they care about. Some things work and some things don't, depending on the direction the user of this app goes," said Swenson, who helped developed the virtual scenarios and write the scripts, so they'd best reflect real world dynamics.

The virtual conversations last about 10 minutes and progress in an organic style, guided by the user's responses.

"There's no threat in it. You get feedback from a coach and, throughout the interaction with the virtual human, you get to find out what they're actually thinking," Swenson said. "We're not trying to turn people into counselors or therapists; we're just trying to give them tools to have that conversation and, hopefully, help make a difference."

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