Youth Risk Survey Raises Alarms

By: Kat Szmit

Members of Monomoy Regional High School's Peer Leader group listen as Julie Slade answers a question regarding the results of the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey on Oct. 7. Kat Szmit Photo

HARWICH – The results of the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey at Monomoy Regional High School are out, and have given school administrators, parents, and educators much to think about.

The 2019 survey was administered in June, and after the weeding out of potentially invalid surveys (in Monomoy's case, 13), a sample size of 522 respondents was used to compile the data, 401 students from grades 9-12, and 121 from Grade 8.

The results were presented to a modest audience of about 50 parents and community members on Oct. 7 by a panel of student peer leaders, who held a question-and-answer segment following an explanation of the data.

That data showed some alarming trends where MRHS students are concerned. While student use of tobacco is well below the state and national averages, the use of e-cigarettes or vapes has skyrocketed, far surpassing state and national averages. According to the survey, students often borrowed vape materials from someone else, obtained them from someone legally able to buy them, gave someone money to purchase them, got them online, or stole them.

In Massachusetts, adults have to be 21 years or older to purchase e-cigarettes or vapes, and there is currently a four-month ban on the sale of vape products.

Marijuana use has also spiked since the survey was last administered in 2016, and Monomoy students' use is above that of peers on the state and national level, with more than 25 percent of survey respondents admitting to using marijuana in the past 30 days, and the age of first use being around 14.

Though the use of other illegal substances, such as ecstasy and heroin, is below or well below state and national levels, a surprising number of students report using inhalants.

Alcohol use is below both state and national averages, but results showed that binge drinking, or consuming more than five alcoholic beverages in a short period of time, is slightly higher. Of further concern is that more young women report binge drinking, and overall alcohol use, than young men, which might tie into another eye-opening set of statistics regarding sexual activity.

While 55 percent of students have not had sexual intercourse, 45 percent of students in grades 9-12 have, and of those, 4.5 percent reported having intercourse before the age of 13. Roughly five times as many female students as males in grades 9-12 also reported being forced into sexual contact, and 18 percent reported being physically harmed by someone they were dating.

Another alarming set of statistics dealt with distracted driving. More than 60 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported texting while driving, with nearly 50 percent reporting talking on a cell phone while driving, those numbers up sharply from past surveys.

Perhaps the most unsettling statistics, especially for those in attendance, were those pertaining to depression and suicide. Of those surveyed, more than 35 percent reported experiencing depression during the past year, with roughly 10 percent saying they had attempted suicide. Those percentages translate into 148 students in grades 9-12 experiencing depression during the past year, 64 who have self-harmed, 48 that have considered suicide, 34 that planned a suicide attempt, and 18 students that actually attempted suicide.

Peer Leader panelist Kaitlyn Lyons said she felt that the statistics on depression and suicide have risen as students are under a great deal more pressure these days, and that social media brings with it a host of concerns, including how students perceive themselves in relationship to others.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter, meanwhile, said that guidance counselors, school psychologists, and administrators are looking for possible links, such as the potential connection between depression and young women using binge drinking, possibly to cope with unwanted or forced sexual experiences.

“It's time for a different kind of sex talk,” Carpenter said. “The survey data is clearly saying that we need to have these conversations and that we need to have different conversations between girls and boys.”

Carpenter emphasized the need to help students understand consent, as well as providing young women information on how to protect themselves.

Perhaps the most important statistics had to do with the messages being conveyed to students by their parents or caregivers. With regard to vaping, underage drinking, binge drinking, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, survey statistics showed that if students believed their parents considered a behavior to be wrong or very wrong, they were far less likely to engage in that behavior. For example, 59 percent of students believing their parents considered vaping not wrong or only a little bit wrong had vaped within the past 30 days of the survey, compared to 21 percent who believed their parents considered it wrong or very wrong.

“We as the adults are the example,” said Carpenter.

“I think it's really important that you know your kids and have a great relationship with them,” said Peer Leader Maggie Dever. “The little things that keep you tethered to them daily, that's what builds their confidence.”

Dever suggested that parents, as “of age” adults, engage in adult behavior, such as drinking with friends, away from their children in order to send a clear message. Jenna Greco agreed, noting that it can be confusing to be told not to drink and drive only to have parents do just that after a dinner out.

Making connections with your children is also key, said the peer leader panel.

“The connections are very important,” said Sarah Babb. “It’s one of the most important things for a teen.”

Babb suggested that parents encourage their children to become involved in school or community activities, which not only help strengthen bonds between students and educators or community members, but also offer a positive outlet. Several of the peer leaders praised Monomoy educators and administrators for fostering caring relationships with students. Principal Bill Burkhead, they said, has taken the time to know the name of every MRHS student, while many teachers, counselors, and coaches provide ongoing academic and emotional support.

David Malone said that he initially had difficulty opening up to teachers at MRHS, but as he's gotten older, those connections have become valuable. Julie Slade agreed, noting that the connections she's made with teachers have helped her navigate difficult times in life.

Carpenter said that MRHS will soon be borrowing an initiative from Monomoy Regional Middle School in which students conduct a confidential daily check-in and note which teachers they feel connected to. Students that feel isolated will be identified, with plans put in place to help them feel supported.

The key, according to survey results, is strong parent/caregiver relationships, and solid connections with trusted educators during the school year.

“We have the students for 180 days from roughly 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” said Carpenter. “Then they go home. They're with their parents for more than 180 days. [The survey issues] are things that cross over. It's going to take all of us to find solutions to address these problems.”

To view the full Youth Risk Behavior Suvey visit https://www.monomoy.edu/Page/3392.