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Survey: Youth substance use down; mental health concerns up

The Herald Journal - 1/17/2018

Data from the Student Health and Risk Prevention survey shows youth in Cache and Logan school districts are using fewer substances, but mental health indicators have worsened in recent years.

Administered every two years to Utah students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades, the SHARP survey asks students to anonymously answer a range of questions on their drug use, mental health and the various factors that encourage or prevent them from using substances and feeling depressed.

The survey is extremely useful to the Bear River Health Department. Prevention Coordinator David Watkins said the health department uses the data to identify the most used substances and the top risk and protective factors to guide their messaging. The data is also vital when the health department applies for grants.

In two presentations last week at Logan and Cache County school board meetings, Watkins said the 2017 survey results show that area youth are making healthy decisions.

“We have among the lowest use rates in the state,” Watkins said. “Utah has some of the lowest use rates in the nation.”

The trends show youth in Logan and Cache County school districts are using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and prescriptions drugs less in 2017 than 2011, but e-cigarette use has been on the rise.

Four percent of youth in Cache County School District self-reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, compared to 4.5 percent in Logan City School District. That seems to be the drug of choice among students in CCSD. Alcohol is the second most-used substance there, at 3.5 percent, followed by marijuana, at 2 percent.

In LCSD, alcohol remains the most-used substance at nearly 5 percent. That’s a big drop from the 9.2 percent reported in 2011. Marijuana use is also on the decline, at 3.3 percent.

According to the survey, youth in LCSD use alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes and marijuana at a higher rate than CCSD youth, but CCSD reported higher use rates for prescription drugs and inhalants. Both were used by about 1.5 percent of CCSD youth. That’s a 2-percentage-point decrease for prescription drug use since 2011.

“Our drug trends are really positive,” Watkins said. “They are going down, they are decreasing or they are staying stable. That’s not true with our mental health indicators, though.”

The SHARP survey asks youth if they need mental health treatment, if they have felt sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row or more, if they have considered attempting suicide and if they have planned attempting suicide. The results for both local districts show an increase in every category since 2011, but nearly all results are below the state average.

Nearly one in five LCSD students said they need mental health treatment, which was the sole response above the state average. That question also saw the biggest jump since 2015, with a 5 percentage point increase.

In CCSD, 19 percent of youth reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more, compared to about 22 percent in Logan.

When prevention specialists like Watkins seek to reduce these numbers, he said it’s more effective to reduce risk factors and strengthen protective factors instead of focusing on the “drug of the day” or specific mental health concerns.

“If we can raise protection or lower risk, there’s going to be even less students that present themselves as having problems,” Watkins said.

In Logan schools, 39 percent of youth reported low neighborhood attachment as a risk factor, which is above the state average, compared to 26 percent who feel low neighborhood attachment in Cache County.

Other risk factors include depressive symptoms, perceived availability of drugs, family conflict and academic failure. Youth in LCSD reported higher rates on all fronts compared to CCSD, with the exception of low commitment to schools. Forty percent of students in the county said they feel a low commitment to their school, compared to about 36 percent in Logan.

Protective factors, which decrease rates of substance abuse and mental health issues, include community involvement, family attachment and involvement at school. Youth in CCSD reported protective levels above the state average in every category. Logan youth reported increases across the board compared to 2011, but the 2017 rate of prosocial community involvement is 15 percent lower than CCSD youth, and family attachment is 10 percent lower.

Watkins these protective factors improve when there are more opportunities for involvement in school. He said it’s all about creating culture. Often, he said, the people involved in sports are also involved in student council and debate teams, but there is another group of students who rarely take on extracurricular activities.

“How do we make this even higher and reach the ones that aren’t the outgoing students who are just naturally going to be involved in that sort of thing?” Watkins said.

At the CCSD Board of Education meeting last Thursday, Board President Kathy Christiansen asked Watkins if he could meet with school counselors to help them see how the data can be used.

In an interview this week, Watkins said the Bear River Health Department has attended school counselor meetings but added that he would like to meet with individual counselors to get a better idea of how schools use the data. And if they’re not using the data, he said the health department could help schools improve protective factors.

“We use the data a lot at the health department, but the data is really for the schools as well, and a lot of the good prevention that can happen is at the schools,” Watkins said.


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