Substance abuse trending down, but some youth face barriers

Recorder Staff
Published: 10/17/2016 10:13:15 PM

GREENFIELD — Substance abuse among Franklin County and the North Quabbin region’s youth is decreasing, according to new data released last week, but youth of color, those from low-income families, and those who belong to the LGBTQ community face unique barriers and health disparities that put them at higher risk for risky behavior.

The Communities That Care Coalition, an arm of the local Partnership For Youth, conducted the study. The group has been active since 2002. It collects data from around the community and local schools, then chooses evidenced-based approaches based on the results and brings together service providers from different disciplines to achieve its goals.

Kat Allen, the coalition’s co-chairwoman, said the group has been able to report decreases in youth use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and binge-drinking each year in the annual Teen Health Survey. It covers 1,700 local youth, representing 70 to 80 percent of all eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students in the county’s schools.

This year’s data was unveiled last week. The coalition took a harder look at the social factors that put youth at risk for substance abuse this time around, and noted that the gap’s beginning to close between white non-Hispanic students and their peers of different races, sexual orientations and economic situations.

Income hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century, she noted, but the county’s demographic mix has — youth of color now make up 18 percent of students surveyed, where it was 9 percent in 2000, for example.

LGBTQ youth are up to 13 percent from 8 percent, which Allen said likely represents increasing social support for members of that group.

“With trends over time, we look at whether these reductions have reached all youth, and they have,” Allen said. “But we still see big disparities in outcomes of local data, substance abuse and other areas.”

The four biggest risk factors for substance abuse in young people are victimization, mental health, unstable home lives, and early exposure to risk, she said. Victimization can include things like bullying or sexual assault; mental health can include depression or attempted suicide.

A rough home life where youth have been kicked out or run away, or have had a parent go to jail, and early exposure to cigarettes or marijuana before the age of 12 also markedly increase risk, Allen said. Those factors can make them two to four times more likely than their peers to develop problems later down the road.

Allen said the data shows LGBTQ youth reported feeling unsafe at school and missing days and experiencing depression at much higher rates than their heterosexual peers. Tyanna Normandin of Community Action Youth Programs says she has worked with transgender youth who find themselves bouncing between jobs due to discrimination or supervisors unwilling to accommodate their preferred gender identity. Meanwhile, Allen said youth of color reported having parents in legal trouble and cigarette use at an early age at much higher rates than non-Hispanic white students from higher income backgrounds.

“Across Franklin County and the North Quabbin, many youth are waking up with the deck stacked against them, with greater challenges than their peers based on what group they’re a part of — factors beyond their control,” she said. “What can we do to help level the playing field … how do we begin prevention efforts earlier, reach them all before risky behavior?”

You can reach Tom Relihan at: 413-772-0261, ext. 264
On Twitter: @RecorderTom


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