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Nurses can significantly reduce substance abuse in homeless youth, a new study finds. The study of 154 drug-using homeless young people, many of whom had experienced a number of life crises, tested the effectiveness of three highly interactive group sessions that were led by nurses.

These sessions focused on education about disease transmission and vaccinations, and provided participants with training in self-management and developing healthy social networks.  Participants talked about their experiences, and how they could integrate health promotion strategies into their lives, reports.

The study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Nursing found the program led to significant reductions in the use of alcohol and binge drinking, as well as decreases in use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and hallucinogens.

The researchers found that an “art messaging” program, in which participants created messages about health and drug use to influence other drug-using youths, was also effective in reducing substance abuse. Teachers from the California Institute for the Arts worked with participants in creating messages through art, photography and video, while discussing good health, risky behaviors and ways to stay safe.

After six months, alcohol use dropped 24 percent in the nurse intervention program, and 25 percent in the art messaging program. Marijuana use decreased 17 percent in the nurse group and 20 percent in the art group. In the nurse group, participants reduced use of hallucinogens (20 percent), methamphetamine (18 percent) and cocaine (15 percent).

“Homeless youth often justify their use of drugs because of the need to stay awake at night to avoid getting mugged, because they are ‘self-medicating’ to quell the voices in their head, or because of the need to cope with the stress of life,” lead researcher Adey Nyamathi said in a news release. “But the sad truth is that once substance abuse use is entrenched, drugs begin to dominate all aspects of homeless youths’ lives.”

The study appears in the American Journal on Addictions.

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