Rates of Alcohol & Drug Use Down for Watertown Students, But Depression & Stress Has Risen

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The rate of alcohol and marijuana is dropping for Watertown students, according to a survey by the Watertown Youth Coalition, but school officials have concerns about use among certain groups, as well as the feeling of depression and not having trusted adults with whom they can speak.

For the past three decades, the Watertown Youth Coalition has monitored the well-being of Watertown students by tracking the use of alcohol and drugs, and rates of depression and stress. In November, the WYC reported the results of the 2023 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was taken by 424 Watertown Middle School students and 591 from Watertown High School.

At the high school 18 percent of students reported they had consumed alcohol over the previous 30 days, down from 23 percent in 2021 and 32 percent in 2017. The middle school went from 4 percent in 2021 to 3 percent in 2023.

Marijuana use at the high school went from 17 percent in 2017 to 11 percent in 2023. The middle school marijuana use was 1 percent.

Vaping dropped the most, from 24 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2023 at the high school. The middle school rate was 2 percent, down from 4 percent in 2017. Vaping includes both nicotine and marijuana, said Stephanie Sunderland, Prevention Program Coordinator at the Watertown Youth Coalition.

Looking at some of the subgroups at WHS, white students had a higher rate of alcohol use, 23 percent than Black, indigenous, and other people of color, or BIPOC, 15 percent. Also, LGBQ+ had a higher rate with 24 percent, and transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (TNBGNC) had a rate of drinking of 21 percent.

With marijuana use at WHS, students identifying as TNBGNC has a rate of 37 percent, and LGBQ+ used at a rate of 21 percent. Similarly, those groups had higher rates of vaping for the high school, with 21 percent of TNBGNC vaping and 16 percent of LGBQ+.

Seeing the higher use among the LGBQ+ and TNBGNC in all three categories means that those are groups of concern, Sunderland said, who added that it may be linked to a feeling of not belonging at school and having a trusted adult to confide with.

“We want to stop that trajectory now,” Sunderland said.

Rates of depression across the board have risen in recent years, with 30 percent of high school students reporting they experienced depression over the past year in 2023, up from 24 percent in 2019. At the middle school, the rate went from 11 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2023.

“We do see depression during the Pandemic going up and it seems like it has been consistent even after the Pandemic,” Sunderland said.

Rates of depression at the high school were higher for LGBQ+ (52 percent), TNBGNC (51 percent), Multiracial (44 percent), and Hispanic/Latino (40 percent). At the middle school, TNBGNC was 48 percent, Hispanic/Latino 31 percent, and LGBQ+ 30 percent.

Stress is also on the rise. At the high school the percent of students reporting overwhelming stress went from 33 percent in 2019 to 39 percent in 2023. Groups with higher stress rates include LGBQ+ at 63 percent, female students 54 percent, TNBGNC 51 percent, and Hispanic/Latino 45 percent.

At the middle school, 28 percent of students reported overwhelming stress in 2023, compared to 22 percent in 2019. Groups with higher rates include TNBGNC and LGBQ+ (both 52 percent), female students (37 percent), and Hispanic/Latino (30 percent).

The survey also asked if students reporting having suicidal thoughts. The rate at the high school has risen slightly from 11 percent in 2017 to 13 percent in 2023. At the middle school it dropped from 14 percent in 2021 to 8 percent in 2023. Some subgroups had higher rates. At the high school, 30 percent of multiracial, 29 percent of LGBQ+, and 27 percent of TNBGNC reported suicidal thoughts. For middle school students, the rates were 24 percent of Black, 24 percent of TNBGNC, and 22 percent of LGBQ+.

This year the survey asked about having a sense of belonging. This is a good measure of risk, Sunderland said.

“Students who feel like they belong in school are less like to use substances,” Sunderland said. “Belonging means kids who are not ostracized, who are not feeling like they are bullied, who are not feeling like they are not accepted for any number of their identities.”

At the high school, 45 percent of students overall said they feel like they belong at their school. The rate was lower for female students (37 percent), TNBGNC (26 percent), and LGBQ+ (32 percent).

The survey also looked at perception of risk and harm from substance use, Sunderland said. The perception of risk and harm among students themselves dropped for all three categories for both middle and high school. At the high school 64 percent said they see alcohol as harmful, 51 percent for marijuana, and 78 percent for vaping. At the middle school the rate was 64 percent for alcohol, 70 percent for marijuana and 78 percent for vaping.

The rate of perceived parental disapproval for using substances for high school students remained about level for marijuana (88 percent) and vaping (89 percent), but the rate for alcohol dropped from 98 percent in 2021 to 76 percent in 2023.

The perceived disapproval by peers for using substances rose slightly in the high school for marijuana (59 percent) and vaping (60 percent), but dropped for alcohol from 69 percent in 2021 to 47 percent in 2023.

The rate of high students reporting they had a trusted adult remained similar in school (62 percent) and at home (81 percent in 2023) but went down for in the community (86 percent in 2021 and 60 percent in 2023).

“Youth needs adults in their lives — caregivers, adults in school, adults in the community — who they trusted to listen and support them without judgement,” Sunderland said. “However, those adults are difficult to identify. We have not heard that before. It’s more recent. We don’t know how to judge who is a trusted adult. We don’t know what that recipe looks like.”

Superintendent Dede Galdston said school officials have taken seriously the data showing low percentages of students feeling of belonging and having trusted adults.

“We see the data. We see that we want to have all of our students feel like they belong and we know we have to try different approaches,” Galdston said. “That’s what the large focus is for this year and for more years to come. We are working on it.”

The high school and middle school have looked to see if any adults feel like they have a strong relationship with an individual student, and if there are students who do not have one the schools are trying to find how to connect with them, Galdston said. It may not be a teacher or guidance counselor, she said.

One change is the advisory systems at the middle and high schools, and not relying on just having the home room teacher be the advisor.

“We are tapping into, at the middle school and high school, to all staff, school social workers, guidance counselors, some of the (instructional aides) have volunteered to be advisors,” Galdston said. “It is more about, ‘Who do you have affinity with?’ and ‘Who you can build a relationship with?’ and that’s why we are breaking it down into smaller groups.”

The district also is implementing a restorative justice training for staff from PreK to 12th grade. Galdston said the district seeks to create a space structure and have a space where students can feel open and talk about what they are feeling. The pilot program will be at Watertown Middle School, and will move it into the high school, as well as to the elementary schools.

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