By Adam Swift
Results of the latest youth community survey by Community Action for Safe Alternatives show increased mental health issues for Winthrop students across the board, as well as a slight uptick in reported drug and alcohol use by middle school students.
Amy Epstein, the executive director of Winthrop-based Community Action for Safe Alternatives (CASA) presented the survey findings to the School Committee at its meeting on Monday.
“CASA is an organization dedicated to helping improve the quality of life for Winthrop residents and provide a safer environment for children and youth by identifying and providing prevention resources within the community,” said Epstein.
CASA provides a number of programs throughout the town, including school drop-in programs, an LGBT youth group, college mentoring, trainings, and community rec nights in conjunction with the police department.
Every two years, CASA conducts a community survey of young people in the community, although Epstein said CASA did not conduct the survey during Covid. The most recent survey was conducted in the spring of 2022, and 809 of the 987 enrolled students in Winthrop participated, she said.
Since first conducting the survey in 2007, Epstein said there has been a steady decline in the number of high school students who said they’ve had a drink of alcohol in the past 30 days, and she said that decline continued in the 2022 survey.
While overall drinking may be down at the high school level, Epstein said there was an increase in the number of high school students who said they have taken part in binge drinking, identified as more than five drinks in a night.
“Binge drinking … tends to be a big issue in Winthrop for young people,” Epstein said. She said the binge drinking numbers have increased from 18 percent of high school students in the 2016 survey to 35 percent in the most recent results.
“What we also see is an increase in the perceived harm of binge drinking being low, so more young people think it is not harmful to binge drink,” said Epstein. “As that number rises, the number for binge drinking rises.”
The lifetime alcohol use numbers did decrease slightly at the high school, but did increase slightly at the middle school, according to Epstein.
“We didn’t see that in the past,” she said. The results are also similar for marijuana use.
Epstein said CASA is working to create more programs to address the issues at the middle school.
“We know that young people who use drugs before the age of 13 are more likely to have problems of addiction,” she said.
Other survey numbers show a decrease in vaping across the board, and a decrease in bullying at the high school and a slight increase at the middle school.
There was a marked increase in reports of cyberbullying, which Epstein said did not come as a surprise given the move to online learning during the Covid pandemic.
The survey also showed an increase in mental health issues, which Epstein said has been a nationwide trend due to the Covid pandemic.
The percentage of students who said they felt depressed or sad most days over a two week period increased at the middle school and high school. And while the numbers for suicidal ideation and planning decreased at the middle school, the number of suicide attempts increased. Epstein said the numbers were similar at the high school.
The metrics that indicate depression also went up, with 35 percent of high schoolers experiencing depression over the past year.
New to the survey this year was a question asking young people how they manage feelings of anxiety and depression.
“What’s really interesting and not surprising is that technology is the most common way people use to manage, but exercise is really high up there and so is staying connected to friends and family,” Epstein said.
Other positive numbers include an increase in young people stating they have someone to talk to if they feel unsafe or abused and need help.
“This number in 2018 was about 78 percent, and this year, it was 90 percent, which was awesome,” said Epstein.