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Goings awarded $1.8 million NIH grant to study substance use in biracial youth and emerging adults

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded UNC School of Social Work Professor Trenette Clark Goings a $1.8 million grant for a national study that will examine substance use among biracial adolescents and emerging adults. The five-year R01 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse is among the most highly competitive federal awards and is generally designated for leading research scholars across the country.

An expert in the substance-use field, Goings’ research focuses broadly on reducing health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities. For this latest study, she and her team aim to better understand why biracial youth, ages 13 to 25, are more at risk for smoking cigarettes and marijuana and for using alcohol.

This latest project will build on findings from a five-year 2013 study, for which Goings also received NIH funding. Her previous work focused on the experiences of substance use among biracial youth compared to the experiences of single-race youth.

“The goal of this newest study is to enhance understanding of the epidemiology and etiology of substance use among biracial adolescents and emerging adults,” said Goings, who was recently appointed the Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor of Social Work.

Using a conceptional model that she developed, Goings and her team will explore what she refers to as a “double jeopardy,” of risk and protective factors that biracial youth experience that potentially increases their chances of engaging in substance use. This experience is framed around how biracial youth identify and the challenges they often face in navigating between multiple racial and ethnic worlds, she explained.

“Compared with single race youth facing only common risk factors for substance use, biracial
youth may face a second layer of contextual risk factors unique to their identity,” Goings explained. “These factors may include peer rejection, family rejection, limited exposure to their minority heritage and biracial role models for example. So, it may be a combination of the biracial child potentially feeling that they do not fit well into any racial, ethnic, or cultural world, while also potentially experiencing unintentional or intentional rejection from some peers, family members, and school staff, as well as microaggressions and institutionalized racism, for example.”

As a result, these youth may experience anxiety, depressive and other mental health symptoms, which may lead to the use of alcohol and other substances, she said.

“Some of it may be self-medicating, and some of it is wanting to fit in,” Goings added. “Of course, there are multiple other reasons that youth initiate drugs, such as curiosity and wanting to feel older. Guided by our conceptual model, we will conduct a comprehensive investigation of the myriad determinants of substance use for biracial adolescents and emerging adults.”

Understanding these determinants of health is vital because the biracial population continues to be one of the fastest growing demographics in the country, she said. Furthermore, previous research has shown that biracial youth currently use substances at higher rates than other youth.

Researchers have found that adolescents who use substances are at greater risk for addiction, risky sexual behavior, and death.

Yet, biracial youth are largely ignored in prevention science and substance-use research, Goings noted.

“It’s important because we know that biracial youth typically report the highest or second highest prevalence of substance use, but we don’t understand why they are using. Effective interventions cannot be developed in the absence of etiologic data.”

Long-term, Goings is excited about her team’s potential for developing innovative culturally congruent programs that prevent biracial youth from ever using substances.

“This study will help us understand what future primary prevention programs should look like,” she said. “Our findings and recommendations will be highly relevant to prevention interventions as well as public policy,” she said.