Since 1994, CASA (Community Against Substance Abuse) has been collecting data from schools, including Winthrop High and Middle Schools, and developing strategies to reduce the risk factors in the environment, and increase protective factors in schools. The organization presented the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) — a tool developed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — during the March 23 Winthrop School Committee meeting.
The YRBS is used internationally to measure youth behavior and perceptions that they have regarding tobacco use, alcohol, marijuana, violence, and mental health. CASA has been implementing the survey every two years with students in grades 6-12; and the findings help them identify patterns and trends that are happening in the country.
“One of the trends that we’ve seen in Massachusetts is the decriminalization of marijuana, use of medical marijuana, and recreational marijuana,” said Pat Milano, Executive Director. “Youth in Winthrop are reporting high rates of use of marijuana.”
Over the past five years, CASA has noticed an increase in the use of prescriptions drugs, which is the third leading cause of drug abuse in the US behind alcohol, which is number one, and marijuana, which is second.
“We had more students reporting that they had used alcohol than the state and national averages,” Milano said. “Alcohol use jumped out at us.”
A survey taken with 465 Winthrop High School students in the spring of 2014 indicated that students do not perceive the use of marijuana as especially troubling behavior, and think that drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes is significantly less harmful. Eighty percent of students felt that prescription drugs are bad for their health.
“The thing that surprised us as we looked at mental health issues is attempted suicide. Across the board, students feel sad and hopeless,” described Milano. “We followed it up with a focus group with adjustment councilors and students because we were concerned that it seemed to be an anomaly.”
CASA surveyed 320 Winthrop Middle School students, who reported less alcohol use than at the state level, but the beginning of alcohol experimentation. Marijuana use is higher than the rates in Massachusetts, and students view the use of tobacco as being more risky than use of prescription drugs. Responses were significantly higher than their peers in Massachusetts when asked if they have ever thought seriously about harming themselves.
“Ideally, we would like to implement an evidence-based and data-driven curriculum into the public schools,” Milano said. “Getting the prevention message in early tends to make the message stick. We’re trying to get kids to feel that they don’t have to fall victim to peer pressure.”
CASA believes that there must be strategies implemented in schools, peer groups, families, and the community so that there is uniformity and understanding. Cameras can be installed, increased lighting, and windows can be repaired in various high risk locations. They hope to provide professional development to school staff, and screening for mental health disorders on a regular basis.
“When you introduce substances into a brain that hasn’t fully matured, it wires itself differently,” said Milano about brain development, which continues until about 25-years-old. “There is a tendency for the reward pathway to be interfered with in a way that puts them at lifelong risk of substance abuse and dependence. We’re also concerned about the behavioral trends as well as the physiological changes that can happen, and the mental health issues.”
Last year, CASA brought a group of students together to do an environmental scan of the community where they felt there was more substance abuse. They presented their documentations to the Department of Public Works to discuss making changes so that the areas are no longer targeted. This summer, CASA is planning to campaign a town-wide clean-up with the community.