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The Importance of Community Engagement

In a new report (November, 2022), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes community engagement as an “essential component of an effective and equitable substance use prevention program.” At the Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies (CAS) at Rutgers University, we have long recognized the importance of community engagement in research, program design, and product development.

Community engagement involves collaboration between researchers, service providers, and people with lived experience in the issue being studied, treated, or prevented. The foundation of this collaboration is trusting respectful relationships that honor the voices and expertise of people with lived experience. Collaboration should span the entire process of design, implementation, evaluation, and dissemination for both research and program development activities. The involvement of stakeholders from the community of interest helps recognize and prioritize inequities and inequality, focus on what really matters to the people affected by research and practice initiatives, and ensure relevance to the community.

SAMHSA identifies the core principles of community engagement as transparency and trust, careful planning and preparation, inclusion and demographic diversity, collaboration and shared purpose, openness and learning, and impact and action. The new SAMHSA report provide guidance on using and evaluation a community engagement approach.

A community engaged process for developing programs and products is call “co-production,” where people with lived experience are equal partners who share decision-making power. The CAS WinR program used this process to create the Journey to Wellness guide. Drawing on the personal and professional experience of our Community Advisory Board, the guide was written and designed over a seven-month process of co-creation. Once complete, the guide was printed and distributed as part of a pilot evaluation. During the evaluation, people in recovery and paid professionals used and shared the guide, reporting on their experiences through surveys and virtual meetings. Our experience with this project reinforced the value of co-production and collaboration at every stage of materials development. Our group of advisors provided validation where the initial draft seemed on target, while informing language decisions, organization, and design in significant ways.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2022). Community Engagement: An Essential Component of an Effective and Equitable Substance Use Prevention System. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP22-06-01-005. Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Swarbrick, M., Kuebler, C., DiGioia-Laird, V., Estes, A., Treitler, P, Moosvi, K., & Nemec, P. (in press). Co-Production: Journey to Wellness Guide. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services.