Penn Rising Senior Works to Prevent Substance Abuse Through Leadership Training

When University of Pennsylvania rising senior Theodore Caputi says he wants to become a health economist, his mentor and former Penn professor Thomas McLellan has no doubt Caputi will succeed.

“He knows exactly what he wants to do and, by god, he’s going to do it,” said McLellan, who founded the Treatment Research Institute and worked in Penn’s psychiatry department for 35 years before retiring in 2015. “Theodore’s already used his writing, speaking and reasoning to change behaviors of high school kids in an area that is very important, very damaging.”

Caputi’s focus is substance abuse, and it’s a topic for which he feels a particular passion. He rattles off statistics like they’re his phone number: There’s been a four-fold increase in the opioid epidemic since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of the 2.8 million new drug users each year are younger than 18.

“Using drugs at 13, 14, 15 is often thought of as youthful indiscretion, innocuous,” Caputi said. “And for the majority of them, it will have no lasting effect. But for a significant proportion of teens and college-age Americans, it leads to a lifetime consumed by dependence and addiction.”

Caputi, who is from Upper Makefield, Pa., feels confident it’s an area ripe for change, something he began working toward in high school by establishing a group that held leadership conferences for students in middle and high school. In the spring of 2014, he brought the program to Penn and expanded it, creating the Penn Leadership Training Institute, or PLTI, which fosters drug prevention by building strong leaders in what he calls “the working classroom of Philadelphia.”

“We don’t have to advertise PLTI as substance-abuse prevention or problem-behavior prevention because it doesn’t have to touch on those topics directly,” Caputi said. “Research shows that programs that focus on personal, social and leadership development build up so-called ‘protective factors’ and make kids more resistant to drug and alcohol abuse.”

PLTI does this by connecting students with their schools and by making them feel that they’re in control of their own lives. “When we’re teaching leadership, I like to think we’re preserving teens’ futures,” Caputi said.

During the most recent spring semester, more than 70 Penn students went to 13 area high schools once a week to do what Caputi describes as co-learning. The University students weren’t there to preach or even to teach; rather they worked with the high schoolers on teamwork, conflict resolution, problem solving, public speaking — the kind of skills from which any budding leader could benefit.

The program, which evolved through a collaboration with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, has received such positive feedback from the high schools that demand has surpassed supply. So, in addition to the Penn undergraduate volunteers, Caputi enlisted participants from the Community College of Philadelphia, the University of the Sciences and Temple University as well. He’s also working on a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, all while taking a normal course load for a double major in both math and economics, and conducting research.

That last component has been ongoing in some capacity since Caputi’s sophomore year in high school, when he independently wrote a research paper about substance abuse, which he then sent to McLellan’s Treatment Research Institute on a whim.  

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” McLellan said, recalling Caputi’s interview. “Here’s this kid with a starched white shirt with a bowtie, but he had an impassioned and sensible view of high school substance use and he knew what it took to reduce it. He had done it. I hired him on the spot.”

More than four years in, this mentor-mentee relationship continues to evolve. Caputi offers TRI ideas from the young adult perspective, and, in exchange, McLellan and other TRI faculty teach Caputi about research methodology and processes. The pair recently co-authored a paper about a new incarnation of the D.A.R.E. program called “keepin’ it REAL,” which ran in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy.

Caputi is also working with a new initiative called the Center for Health Economics Research in Substance Use Disorder, HCV and HIV started by the Leonard Davis Institute at Penn, along with groups at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Boston Medical Center and University of Miami.

“Essentially we’re analyzing and evaluating a lot of the research regarding health economics, specifically research concerning substance abuse, which is highly correlated with hepatitis C and HIV infection,” Caputi said. “Population health and economics are completely intertwined. We need to understand policy and its broad effect and unintended consequences on the well being of people.”  

This past January, the Leonard Davis Institute awarded Caputi the inaugural Undergraduate Health Economics Research Prize for “high interest and initiative” in health research and policy analysis.

Caputi has a lot on his plate. But he does it all with a smile and sincere gratitude for the people who have helped him and who continue to do so.

“Research has really been my passion since high school,” he said. “And PLTI has been an excellent experience, working with the Philadelphia community, learning what it’s like to bring good science into the school setting, getting to know what influencing a program is like and learning about leadership skills with high school students who are just phenomenal. They blow my mind.”