By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University’s Ijeoma Opara, a new Assistant Professor in the School of Social Welfare, is starting her promising early scientific career by making history, becoming the first social worker to receive an Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Opara, who hopes the award opens doors to other social workers and to other scientists of color, plans to use the funds to create a research study and intervention program that will make a difference.

Opara will study the link between mental heath and substance abuse in Paterson, New Jersey, where she conducted her PhD training while attending Montclair State University and where she hopes to help youth who may not attend school often enough to benefit from programs in academic settings. She also hopes to understand issues that youth may be facing that lead to substance abuse and poor mental health.

Opara plans to use the $1.84 million, five-year grant to conduct venue-based sampling, where she will search for at-risk youth and where she can tailor mental health and substance abuse questions that are relevant to the experience of the children she hopes to help.

“A lot of youth that needed these services, who had substance abuse and serious issues with mental health, weren’t going to school,” said Opara. “They weren’t in locations [where] a lot of researchers collect data.”

It didn’t make sense to collect the survey information from students in school when the people who need these services are not present in the system. “Meeting them where they are to figure out how to get them engaged” became a critical element to conceptualizing this study, said Opara. “There is no such thing as hard-to-reach populations.”

The NIH award Opara received encourages young researchers who recently completed their graduate work to engage in high-risk, high-return studies.

The risk in Opara’s work is that she won’t be able to recruit enough youth. She is, however, is convinced that her past experience in Paterson, a city filled with communities she’s grown to love, will enable her to find and reach out to targeted youth.

She’s currently in the first phase of her two-part effort; finding staff, figuring out ways to find people for her studies and designing questions relevant to them and their lives. In the second part of her research, she plans to provide mental health and substance abuse services.

Michelle Ballan, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Welfare, applauded Opara’s approach to her research.

“Venue-based sampling takes considerable work,” Ballan said. “It’s much easier to send a survey to schools.”

Indeed, this kind of effort “takes time, manpower and a tremendous understanding of how [Opara’s] inter-disciplinary focus is intertwined,” Ballan said. “She’s a family studies researcher, a social worker, and a public health researcher. Having those three areas of expertise, it’s not surprising that venue-based sampling was the one she chose.”

Opara is turning to some of the leaders in Paterson to advise her during this effort. She has created a community advisory board that represents youth and includes community leaders.

One of the challenges this year is that some of the sites where these youth might typically congregate may have fewer people during the pandemic. “It’s something we’re really focusing on in our first couple of meetings: where are the youth going?” Opara asked. She suggested sites could include basketball courts and parks. She is also exploring ways to recruit youth (between ages 13 and 21) online.

Opara is hoping to understand how the environment may impact people in the community as either a protective or a risk factor for substance abuse and mental health.

“What are some structures that could be serving as a protective buffer for kids who aren’t engaging in substance abuse and who don’t have negative mental health symptoms?” she asked.

On the other hand, she would like to identify those buildings or features that increase the trauma or risk and that might cause youth to mask their symptoms.

Once she finds these at-risk youths, Opara will ask about drug and alcohol use, lifetime drug use, their feelings about mental health and their levels of anxiety and depression. She also expects to ask about suicidal ideation.

When she understands the challenges and stressors, she hopes to create a culturally relevant, community based and neighborhood focused intervention. For this to work, she plans to recruit some of the people involved in the study to inform these solutions.

Opara is determined to make a difference for the city of Paterson.

“I don’t want to leave the community with nothing,” she said. “I don’t want to come in, collect data and leave. It’s important to create a sustainable change” that will “empower the community and empower youth.”

In Paterson, Opara recognizes the diversity of different neighborhoods, with people from different backgrounds, experiences and languages living in different blocks.

As a research assistant at Montclair, Opara said she encountered resistance at efforts to change neighborhoods, particularly when she was involved in programs to reduce the hours when liquor stores were open. She said youth mobilization, which included speaking about their experiences witnessing alcoholism in their neighborhoods, helped encourage the city council to pass the ordinance.

People came from other neighborhoods, bought alcohol, drank until they passed out and created a “really dangerous environment” as youth and teenagers were afraid to walk home past people who were drunk in the streets.

Opara appreciates the support of educators in the Paterson School District and the mayor, André Sayegh. She said her efforts may be particularly important in this environment, as New Jersey has cut funding from school-based youth services amid a declining budget caused by a slowing economy triggered by the pandemic.

If the program Opara creates works, she hopes other researchers can extend it to other communities.