Alcohol, Drug Use Down Among Middle, High Schoolers, Vaping More Common Than Smoking

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Watertown High School and Middle School students are drinking, smoking and doing drugs less than they have in previous years, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The study also looked at depression, suicide and bullying.

Stephanie Sunderland-Ramsey, Program Coordinator of the group that organized the survey — Wayside Youth & Family Support Network — spoke to the School Committee on March 2. She believes the decrease is the result of efforts to education students and try to prevent them from using alcohol, tobacco and rugs.

“We’ve existed on grant funding for the last 20 years, and so I would say it is prevention at work,” Sunderland Ramsey said. “We look at things very differently now. There is science behind this and the methods use nationally.”

Substance use as well as depression are linked to stresses felt by youth, said Sunderland-Ramsey.

“Stress is not going to go away. We are going to have it, so why not talk about making use of it,” Sunderland-Ramsey said. “We need to know how to understand what stress is trying to tell you and how to deal with it at local and national level.”

The survey was conducted in the spring of 2019. At the high school, 73 percent of the students took the survey, and 91 percent of middle school students took it. Wayside now has 10 years of survey results. It is given even two years, and was first administered in 2009.

The trends have been in the right direction, said Min Ma, who worked with Wayside to interpret the survey results.

“Overall for substance use, the high level picture is that it has gone down, which is good news,” Ma said.

When asked if they had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days, 18 percent of high school students said they had, and 11 percent said they had participated in binge drinking (5 drinks in two hours for males, 4 drinks in that time for females) in the last 30 days. For high school seniors, the binge drinking rate was higher at 20 percent.

“Both have down significantly last 10 years,” Ma said, noting that in 2009, 45 percent of high school students had a drink in the last 30 days and 33 percent had binge drank in the last 30 days.

Only 2.5 percent of Middle School students had a drink within the past 30 days.

While cigarette use has dropped, students using electric vaporizers at a rate higher than they smoke. In 2009, 17 percent of high schoolers smoked cigarettes and 4 percent did in 2019. The percent of high schoolers who vaped in 2019 is 21 percent, while 4 percent of middle schoolers reported using vape products.

The use of marijuana has also dropped, but Ma said the most recent survey was given before the legal cannabis market hit Massachusetts.

“It might look a little different in two years, given all the changes recently,” Ma said.

At the high school, 14 percent said they use marihuana at some point, and 2.3 percent of middle schoolers said they have used it.

In terms of other drug use, the highest rate was for using prescription drugs not prescribed to them: 4.4 percent at the high school and 2.3 percent at the middle school. 

The survey also looked at the rates of reported depression, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.

Ma said the rate for depression at the high school was higher for female students (29 percent) than males (19 percent). At the middle school, 18 percent of students reported feeling depressed, and 26 percent of female students reported it, compared to 11 percent for males.

Sunderland-Ramsey said that those trends are similar compared to youth nationally.

Within a year of the survey, the number of WHS students who said they thought about suicide was 12 percent, and 3.3 percent said they attempted suicide. The numbers were similar to 2017, the last time the survey was conducted.

At the Middle School, the number who considered suicide was slightly up, from 9 percent in 2017 to 11 percent in 2019. The attempted suicides decreased from 4 percent to 2.6 percent at WMS. The highest rates were with ninth-grade girls and 12th grade boys.

While the numbers of attempted suicides are low, Sutherland said suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 10 to 24.

“Why is the big question,” Sunderland-Ramsey said. “What we are talking about is how to recognize it and respond to the sadness.”

The survey also looked at bullying and cyberbullying. In both cases, it was more common among females in Watertown.

At the high school, 10 percent of female students reported being bullied over the past year, while 9 percent of males said they had been. The rates were higher at the Middle School, with 36 percent of girls and 23 percent of boys saying they had been bullied.

The rates of cyber bullying over the previous year at the high school was 11 percent for girls and 8 percent for boys. Again, the rates increased for middle school students, with 25 percent of female students and 13 percent of male students saying they had been cyber bullied.

Wayside and its Watertown Youth Coalition will speak more about the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey at a community event planned for April 29, Sunderland-Ramsey said.

See the 2019 Watertown Youth Risk Behavior Survey report by clicking here.

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