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Public Health Students Explore Complex Issues Facing Vermonters

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UVM Master of Public Health students investigate some of Vermont’s most serious epidemics.

For example, binge drinking among Vermont’s high school-aged youth doubles the odds of making a plan of suicide, according to a report prepared last spring by Rachel Danis and her team in the PH392 Culminating Project Experience course.

Danis, who completed the UVM Master of Public Health degree program in May, was part of a team that researched “UVM Adolescent Alcohol Usage in Vermont: A Comprehensive Review of Underage Drinking and its Associations with Suicidality.”

The study sought to better understand the current adolescent alcohol usage landscape in Vermont and its association with the state’s increased rates of adolescent suicidal ideation and attempts.

“I think one of the most surprising things we found with adolescent alcohol usage in Vermont was how young teenagers were starting to drink,” Danis says.

Helping Public Health Degree Students Hone Their Research Skills

In the PH392 Culminating Project Experience five-credit course, students spend two semesters researching specific topics, such as binge drinking, suicidal ideation, health care utilization, and e-cigarette use. They use a mix of nationally representative and Vermont-specific data sets to do their projects.

Students split into teams that work to create a visually informative poster and video presentation. Students also complete a manuscript to be submitted to the American Journal of Public Health.

Larner College of Medicine Assistant Professor Thomas Delaney, PhD, teaches in the Master of Public Health program and serves as a faculty mentor in PH392. He says the course is all about helping students enhance teamwork and communication skills, as well as become better researchers. Following the course, students also take one credit of Applied Practice Experience.

“We want them to learn how to analyze data,” Delaney says. “This course is very much on the research and epidemiology side of things, and ultimately we want to frame the students’ work to inform programs and policy.”

Student teams consult with their faculty mentors and other co-authors throughout the course, and each student is assigned a role within their team, such as project manager, lead analyst, and analyst data manager.

Using data from the Vermont Department of Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Study as well as the Centers for Disease Control, Danis and her peers found a significant increase in the number of adolescents planning or attempting suicide between 2007 and 2017, and a significant increase in adolescent alcohol usage occurred between 2015 and 2017.

“We were surprised by the correlations we found,” says Danis, who served as her team’s lead analyst. “We also found information that living in a rural area made it easier to gain access to alcohol.”

Danis hopes the adolescent alcohol usage report will help better inform a national conversation about adolescent substance abuse, mental health policy, and intervention initiatives. Her group’s work also aims to inform future directions that researchers can pursue concerning adolescent alcohol usage and its ties to suicidality.

Learn more about the Culminating Project Experience in the course descriptions, along with other courses as part of the online Master of Public Health.

UVM’s Master of Public Health Program is accepting applications  now.