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Q&A with Mary Haag, former President and CEO of Prevention First!

Oct 17, 2019

Mary Haag is the former President and CEO of PreventionFIRST!, a nonprofit that promotes wellness through the prevention of substance use and misuse throughout Greater Cincinnati. Haag, who retired Sept. 30, spoke with Interact for Health about prevention work and reflected on her 25-year career in substance abuse prevention.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about PreventionFIRST! and its goals?

Haag: PreventionFIRST!’s mission is to promote healthy behaviors by sparking and sustaining community change. The goals are to have more communities engaged in prevention and more people making healthy choices.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned throughout your career?

Haag: It is important to remember that substance abuse can happen to anybody. Prevention takes time, groups of people working together, patience and repetition.

Our volunteers have always amazed me. Often it’s simply people who are concerned about their community or their family, and they just do something about it. Other important lessons are that most people are good and want to do the right thing, your staff is your greatest resource and you have to love what you do.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the local community?

Haag: When we see community change happen, that’s our “ah-ha” moment.  That is when we know we did our job. PreventionFirst! has been fortunate to make an impact on the federal, state and local levels. On a local level, one story comes to mind. A local school district asked PreventionFIRST! to come in and lead a professional development day for its staff, presenting on prevention curriculum, policy, planning, etc., to help the district reach a comprehensive plan. At the time, there were no local coalitions in that community doing prevention work. Today, (the school district’s coalition) is in its 10th year of Drug-Free Communities Program funding, a pinnacle of prevention funding.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of PreventionFIRST! are you most proud of?

Haag: I am so proud of the reductions in youth substance use or misuse and the changes in risk and protective factors that influence their use. The 2018 PreventionFIRST! Student Survey highlights that since 2000, among Greater Cincinnati youth, alcohol use has declined 54%, cigarette use 64%, marijuana use 46% and prescription drug use 63%. I am proud of the nearly 30 coalitions in the area that have received federal Drug-Free Communities Support Program funding, bringing over $20 million into the region to increase community collaboration and reduce youth substance abuse. I firmly believe in the model of community coalitions and the impact they can have in bringing change.

Interact for Health: Now that you have entered retirement, can you reflect back to what about your work was most exciting?

Haag: I woke up every day looking forward to my work. I loved the variety, the people, the partners and the communities. I especially liked the challenge of putting together the puzzle pieces of the work. From understanding the data to putting together a plan to finding funding to seeing results – making all of the pieces fit together is exciting. This work is so interesting and diverse and at the end of the day, it is all about personal relationships.

Interact for Health: Looking toward the future, what do you recommend focusing on to increase the effectiveness of prevention efforts?

Haag: Since there are biologic components that we cannot control, we must put more effort into working upstream to prevent disease from starting, or reducing the impact it can have on an individual, family and community. Until every person, every community, every institution embraces the concept of living well every day, we will have issues related to our health and lifestyles. We can work on environmental factors and policy change, which can have greater impact at a population level. We can support the development of community collaborations, promoting a collective impact approach. We need to leverage multiple strategies across multiple sectors to drive impact. Finally, we can dig deeper into what the data is telling us to target subpopulations and specific communities to identify and address underlying factors.

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