Despite challenges that our communities face, our local prevention coalitions have had many successes. But don’t just take our word for it, let’s look at the data! If you are not usually comfortable looking at charts and graphs, don’t worry – we will walk you through it.
First of all, what is data? Data are statistics or other facts that are gathered and used to analyze a situation, like the health of a community or how much teens are using drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important types of data that we use comes from local teen health surveys. Every year, the 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students in Franklin County and North Quabbin schools take a survey coordinated by our partner coalition, the Communities That Care Coalition.
We use three different surveys that ask a variety of questions about behavior, experiences, and attitudes related to health. For example, there are questions about whether they have an adult to talk with at school about important issues, questions about mental health, and a variety of questions about other health-related topics. Related to substance use, there are questions about whether students drink or use different drugs, how risky they think it is to use alcohol and drugs, how their parents feel about drug and alcohol use, and more.
Why do we trust this survey data? There are several reasons! Most of the questions have been used and tested over many years across the country, so we can compare the answers from local students with survey answers from students across the country or state. We also know that most students are honest on these surveys. The surveys are anonymous, and we have ways to screen out any surveys in which a student is not honest or taking it seriously, because those answers can skew the data.
What do we do with survey data? With this great information about what students are doing and how they feel about drugs, alcohol, themselves, their schools, their families, and their communities, we can figure out what some of the most important strengths and challenges are in our communities. We focus on prevention approaches that support the protective factors (community and strengths that reduce the risk of health concerns like youth substance use) and reduce the risk factors (problems that increase the risk of health concerns). We use evidence-based approaches, which means they are educational programs, policies, or other approaches that have been researched and shown to make a positive difference.
And now the results…
Let’s take a look at some data about reductions in student alcohol and drug use over time in our region! Here is a chart from the Communities That Care Coalition that shows declines in alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use as well as binge drinking among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders from 2010 to 2019. This particular chart shows the percentages for any use or binge drinking within the last 30 days – that is considered “current use.” If we look at data going back to 2003, when local data was first collected, we see even bigger declines!
If you are not used to looking at charts, this is what it shows: The top line, in blue, shows the percentage of students who said they drank any alcohol (except for religious purposes, medication, etc) during the last 30 days. On the left, in 2010, 35% of students said they had. On the right, in 2019, 23% said they had. 12% is a big decline! The percentages in 2013 and 2016 show that the decline from 2010 to 2019 was steady and consistent. We also see clear declines in binge drinking and cigarette use. There is an overall decline in marijuana use from 2010 to 2019, but there was a small increase between 2016 and 2019.
What happened with Marijuana Use by Students? Marijuana use was going down steadily until 2016. 2016 is when there was a vote to legalize commercial marijuana in Massachusetts. Although we cannot be sure about the connection between the increase in use and legalization, one possibility is that using marijuana seems less risky to high school students than it did before it was legalized. We have seen a reduction in students’ perception of how risky youth marijuana use is during that time period. In other words, they think it’s less of a big deal than they used to. It is also possible that it is more easy to access, and/or that students are less concerned about consequences or adult perception of teen use. Although we do not focus on responsible adult use of marijuana and other substances in our coalitions, we are concerned about the effects of marijuana use on developing teen brains – this is because research strongly shows that regular marijuana use has negative effects on attention, learning, and memory.
One last note on marijuana here – more in the Resources section: Nicotine, alcohol, and many additional drugs other than marijuana also have clear negative effects on developing teen brains, so we are actually more concerned about when young people start using a substance than what it is!
We have had many other successes and believe that these are part of why we are seeing declines in youth substance use and improvements in other areas, like how connected students feel to their schools, how parents talk about substance use with their kids, and more.
Schools: The schools in the towns we serve are highly involved in our coalitions and Our coalitions have been involved in the implementation of prevention-friendly curricula, training, programs, and policies. The local schools use evidence-based prevention curricula like the LifeSkills Training, which provides students with a variety of skills shown to reduce the risk of substance use and violence. Since our coalitions were founded, hundreds of students in the districts we work with have been educated using this curriculum. The local schools train their school staff on a variety of topics and issues important to prevention and use programs and policies that help to prevent and successfully respond to student substance use.
Local Government and Law Enforcement: Our local town/city governments and statewide senators and representatives are connected to our coalitions and support our work. We also partner with local police departments and the District Attorney’s Office on issues related to youth substance use. Representatives from local government and law enforcement agencies attend our meetings and events, which gives us the opportunity to learn from each other about emerging issues and bring a public health prevention perspective to the conversation.
We also coordinate efforts with other substance use prevention coalitions, substance misuse treatment organizations, youth-serving organizations, and other local human service agencies. This helps us to share information and better serve the communities where we live and work.
And more…! Survey data for the region is available through the Communities That Care Coalition, and we are happy to discuss data and other successes any time. We also love to hear your ideas! So get in touch any time with comments or questions about our work.