Study Released by Youth Task Force Shows Drinking Remains Prevalent, but Fewer Teens Smoke Cigarettes

Survey results released this week about risky behavior among Island middle school and high school students reveal few surprises about drug and alcohol use.

Drinking and smoking pot are still the top risky behaviors for Island teens, although no worse than last year. High school binge drinking and marijuana use are slightly down on the Vineyard, but also continue to be above state and national levels.

The results, released by the Dukes County Health Counsel's Youth Task Force on Tuesday, also show that cigarette smoking is still plummeting among Island youth and is now less common here than state and nationwide.

One new red flag to come out of the survey is a jump in the rate of suicide attempts among both middle school and high school students.

The number of students who reported feeling extremely depressed for at least two weeks stayed about the same in both the middle school and high school, as did the number of students who said they seriously considered attempting suicide.

But the number of students who said they actually attempted suicide in the last year jumped from 5 per cent in the high school's last three surveys - going back to the year 2000 - to 12 per cent this year. This exceeds the state average of six per cent and the national average of eight per cent.

In middle school, 11 per cent of seventh and eighth graders reported having attempted suicide in the last year - up from two and three per cent in the previous years' survey results. State and national statistics were not available for middle schoolers.

The rate of students who deliberately hurt themselves by cutting, burning or bruising was 18 per cent among high school students - the same as in 2005. The incidence of this among middle schoolers was 13 per cent - up from 10 per cent in 2005.

Surveys from past years show that girls are much more likely to cite depression, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts and cutting. A gender breakdown for this year's statistics is not yet available.

"This is just the beginning of the conversation," youth task force member Cindy Doyle said this week. "What we want to do is use these results to find out where we need to dig deeper. Clearly, the results give us some information, but they also point to things that we need to know lots more about. Our intention is to keep asking questions."

Modeled after the Centers for Disease Control's national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the Dukes County survey was administered to Island students in grades seven through 12 in February of this year.

The total number of surveys compiled represent 855 Island youths - 78 per cent of students enrolled in grades seven through 12. In addition to students who were absent or on field trips, 55 surveys were removed for failing a validity check performed by the Southeast Center for Healthy Communities.

This is the fourth risk behavior survey of its kind on the Vineyard. Similar surveys were performed in 2000, 2002 and 2005, giving the youth task force sufficient data to observe trends.

One difference in this year's survey is that it eliminated sections on physical health and violence and safety. This means there are no statistics this year about sexual activity, condom use, perception of body weight, dieting, bullying and feelings of safety in school and outside school.

The sections on health and violence were replaced by sections that asked students about their perceptions of drug and alcohol use of students in the regional high school. Research has shown there is a relationship between what young people believe their peers are doing and what they actually choose to do.

For this reason, the youth task force is urging the press to show the survey results in the most positive possible light and avoid mentioning data - including the statistics on suicide attempts - that show an increase in unwanted behavior. There is a risk that young people would read or hear about that information and mirror that behavior, Mrs. Doyle said.

Information compiled about students' perceptions was mixed.

Most high schoolers believed - correctly - that the average regional high school student had a drink of alcohol in the last month. How much they thought the average student drank was somewhat inflated. The majority of high schoolers (67 per cent) said the average student drank six or more days in the last month. In reality, only 20 per cent of high school students drank six or more days, according to the survey. Among those students who drank in the last month, 37 per cent drank on six or more occasions.

High schoolers' perceptions of marijuana use among their peers were slightly more exaggerated. While less than half of regional high school students (30 per cent) had actually smoked pot in the last 30 days, 94 per cent of students believe the average Martha's Vineyard High School student uses marijuana. More than half said they thought the average student smoked 10 or more days per month, but the survey results show only 10 per cent of students smoke pot 10 or more days per month. Among those who used marijuana in the last month, 35 per cent smoked on 10 or more days.

Middle schoolers' perceptions of regional high school behavior were generally not inflated. In some cases, the seventh and eighth graders underestimated high school drug and alcohol use. For example, 86 per cent of middle schoolers believe that less than half of students at the regional high school had a drink of alcohol in the last 30 days. In reality, 55 per cent of high schoolers had had a drink.

The youth task force has applied for a grant that would give it $100,000 a year for five years to fund strategies for reducing drug and alcohol use on the Island. They expect to hear this month whether Dukes County is one of a few communities to win the funds.

The 2007 survey results also found:

* 55 per cent of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days, slightly higher than in 2005, but lower than the 2000 survey result of 64 per cent. The state average is 48 per cent and national average is 43 per cent.

* 64 per cent of ninth graders do not use alcohol, but nearly three-quarters of seniors said they drank alcohol at least once in the last month. The average age of first trying alcohol, "other than a few sips," was just over 13.

* One in ten high school students said they drove a vehicle after drinking alcohol in the last 30 days, down slightly from past years and about the same as state and national averages. The number of students who rode in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking was 28 per cent - also about the same as state and national averages, but slightly down from 2005.

* Binge drinking has decreased slightly over the last four surveys - from 44 per cent in 2000 to 39 per cent in 2007. Still, over half of high school students who drank, binge drank. In Massachusetts, 27 per cent report binge drinking and nationally, 26 per cent.

* Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past month. It was slightly more common in high school boys than girls, and the most binge drinking occurred among 11th graders. Over half - 51 per cent - of juniors said they binge drank.

* Marijuana use has also shown a downward trend each year, from 43 per cent in 2000 to 30 per cent in 2007. State and national averages are lower at 26 and 20 per cent respectively.

* 52 per cent of high school students said they had used marijuana at least once in their lives. The average age of first trying it was just under 14. Marijuana use jumped between ninth and 10th grade - from nine per cent to 35 per cent, and was highest in 11th grade, with 42 per cent of students reporting they had smoked pot in the last 30 days.

* Cigarette use dropped from 30 per cent in 2000 to 13 per cent this year, lower than the state average of 21 per cent and the national average of 26 per cent. Twice as many girls reported smoking cigarettes than boys.

* In grades seven and eight, alcohol was the most commonly used substance, followed by marijuana and cigars. In the last 30 days, 11 per cent of middle schoolers said they had had a drink, the same as in 2005. A total of six per cent reported binge drinking in the last 30 days, meaning that over half of those who did drink, binge drank. This mirrors the high school statistics.

* Six per cent of middle schoolers reported marijuana use, up from the 2005 survey, when three per cent had smoked pot in the last month. The average age of first trying marijuana was 12 and a half, but the most common age was 13 or 14.

* The next most common illegal substance currently used among middle schoolers was cigars, with four per cent reporting current use.