Fred Muench, PhD, is the President and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, a national nonprofit that supports families struggling with their son or daughter’s substance use. He is a clinical psychologist with extensive knowledge and understanding of substance use disorders, as well as a leader in leveraging digital platforms to help ensure that families who are dealing with substance use disorders have better outcomes.
You were named President and CEO of Partnership for Drug-Free Kids in 2017, after serving as Partnership’s Director of Research. What are the biggest changes you have made since taking on your new role?
The Partnership has such an amazing legacy of reaching young people and families through comprehensive communication and media. Over the last several years, we have shifted to enhancing that media reach with new media but also focusing on providing families with resources and guidance to support a loved one – whatever their need is prevention to recovery. As we say – we support the supporters which are those closest to the person struggling – being primarily parents and caregivers. They are the first, second, third and 15th responders. Supporters are there before and after treatment and every day but we don’t have an infrastructure that focuses solely on them despite the research evidence.
Since coming on board I have focused on four main areas for year 1 to support concerned others improving the digital/technology infrastructure, enhancing parent and peer support, focusing on innovation, and partnering with other organizations.
First, is streamlining the technology infrastructure to provide seamless support through an individuals preferred communication medium and need. Whether you are coming in via text message, Facebook, email, or phone it is all through a comprehensive platform. We also integrated automated mobile messaging that is tailored to the individual needs of a parent or caregiver so they can receive ongoing automated tailored support without needed to speak with someone. Anytime they are ready, they can type chat and a specialist will get back to them. There is a ton more like streamlining all the websites, using analytics to drive innovation and building in operational efficiencies in the tech space. The goal is easy communication. I could have never done this without bringing in my long-term partner and CTO Doug Leu. Together with the digital team, we have approached this like a start-up.
Second, is enhancing the actual services to parents and caregivers through the products and services but also shifting staff funding to our helpline services. We are serving nearly 1000 families a month now – which is a 300% increase from last year and that doesn’t include all our new programs and services. We are creating online groups, e-learning, and expanding our parent coach network. We have hired amazing new staff to compliment the dedicated team that was doing this for so many years without enough support. Embedded in everything we do is to focus on innovation to foster connection and ongoing support.
Third is Innovation: Non-profits are often constrained by their historical programming which limits new innovation. The last year has been focused on new products and services through testing and iterating. Our mobile messaging program for families is constantly evolving and we are adding new components and features based on feedback from consumers and staff. Having a culture of innovation is hard to foster. You need to have the right infrastructure to allow for all staff to innovate because they have great ideas if given the right foundation. Innovation is driven by both our services and technology platform.
Fourth is partnering with other organizations. Letting go of ego is one of the hardest lessons we all need to learn as humans. When I first got into this non-profit executive world, I was shocked by the competitiveness, then I realized I was being naive. However, we were able to identify partners that have a similar overall mission but have different strengths. We work closely with Center on Addiction on new initiatives for families and providers, CMC Foundation for Change who are our clinical training partners on the coaching network, Legal Action Center on parity as well as other addiction orgs. Similarly, we have connected with a number of organizations that have different missions but similar targets such as the Child-Mind Institute and the Boys and Girls Club. There is usually a way to find a win-win. The key to being in a partnership is to be confident and clear about roles. Once you begin to overlap too much or try to control your partners work, everything falls apart. We are driven by the mission to help supporters support loved ones. If we do that well and don’t get complacent or too competitive, people usually want to partner with you.
You have been the Principal Investigator on research studies utilizing technology to curb addiction and impulsivity, including the development of a text messaging/short message service (SMS) intervention to help people reduce or stop drinking alcohol. What are the greatest take-away findings from your research? Where are the gaps in research and implementation in this area?
It has been a fascinating journey in the digital health space. I have learned more by failing than by succeeding. The greatest take away I have learned is to make things easy for people and keep them positive. Our messaging studies had pretty powerful effect sizes. When we asked people what helped, they said, I didn’t really have to do very much; it just motivated me a bit not to drink so much. It was a reminder. A salient tailored reminder at the right time is nearly as powerful as a face-to-face intervention for alcohol moderation. I think the main gaps are in assessing effectiveness in the real world. If you look at digital health research, it rarely holds up in real-world settings because of massive attrition in the interventions. This could be true of our work too. People often don’t use apps or go to websites if not in a study or supported by humans. To reach people who are actually trying to change outside of a study, make it easy and build in triggers for ongoing connection and sustainability. We are testing these real world outcomes at the Partnership in the coming year.
What do you find to be the biggest needs of families struggling with addiction? Can you tell us about some of the specific resources you offer to parents whose children are struggling with substance use?
Needs are tied to where one is on the continuum. Not using vs. using on the weekends vs. every day and the severity and type of use. One of the biggest needs for families is to feel confident that they can make a difference and create hope. At the same time, it is making sure they know there are no quick fixes. You can’t send a loved one to treatment and think you are done. It is a journey. We focus on the journey and on it there are a few common themes across intervention types like learning motivations for use, proper communication, self-care, boundaries, working with other family members, alternate activities, etc. Within each of those is understanding family dynamics, peer dynamics social networks and so much more that we provide guidance on to families.
We offer a wide range of resources, depending on the individual needs of the family. Our Helpline connects family members to Master’s level clinicians who can help with immediate crisis situations, referrals for support in the addiction treatment system, and guidance on how to best support a child struggling with this issue. Parents can reach out to us via text, Facebook or Phone, choosing the method that feels most comfortable for them. Our Parent Coaching program matches up families with a Coach who has been trained in providing peer-to-peer support. These Coaches themselves have first-hand experience with a family member with a substance addiction. We also offer a texting program, where parents can sign up to receive text messages on a regular basis that offer a combination of hope and information.
What can a family member expect when they call the Partnership’s Toll-Free Helpline (855-DRUGFREE)?
First and foremost, families can expect a caring, non-judgmental and supportive Helpline Specialist to connect with. The warmth and compassion extended by our Specialists provides a bridge to our array of services. Specialists invite family members to connect with our services in the way they feel most comfortable. For many of these families, this is the first time they have received this kind of support in their efforts to help a child struggling with a substance use issue. Many feel tremendous shame and are full of guilt. They have been blamed by and isolated from the systems of addiction treatment in this country. Once families feel supported and connected to us, Specialists work with them to determine what their particular needs are in the current moment and create a mutually agreed upon plan of action. This can involve education on addiction, referrals for treatment, parenting strategies and information on self-care. The plan is unique and tailored to fit each individual situation, theirs is no one size fits all recommendation. Families can also stay connected via our other communication mediums after they call as well.
While the Partnership’s Director of Research, you served as the primary clinical and operational development lead on the Partnership’s Toll-Free Helpline (855-DRUGFREE). Do you have any words of wisdom for parents and families who are conflicted about reaching out for help?
We know how hard it is to ask for help from a stranger, particularly if you have had bad experiences asking for help with this issue from others. We assure you that we offer a different kind of support. We believe that families are an integral part of the solution, and that with the right information and support, you can play a huge role in helping your child who is struggling. The first step is to reach out for help. We will be here when you are ready to do so, even if it is simply to offer an empathic ear if that is what a loved one or caregiver needs.
What are Partnership’s current priorities and what do you hope to accomplish in the near future?
We have a number of priorities which we will accomplish with our partners. This includes continuing to empower families, to advocate for them and make policy changes so addiction is treated like other diseases, to help systems to include support for caregivers and families, and to create more campaigns to end stigma so families and concerned others can feel comfortable seeking help for themselves and their loved ones.
Partnership for Drug-Free Kids is committed to helping families struggling with their son or daughter’s substance use. We empower families with information, support and guidance to get the help their loved one needs and deserves. On our website, drugfree.org, and through our toll-free helpline (1-855-DRUGFREE), we provide families with direct support and guidance to help them address teen substance use. Finally, we build healthy communities, advocating for greater understanding and more effective programs to treat the disease of addiction.