Opinion by Julie Dostal: Substance use keeps dropping among our youth

Opinion by Julie Dostal:
Substance use keeps
dropping among our youth

In a world that seems full of bad news, scary headlines, and social media battles, who couldn’t use a little uplift? I know I certainly could and was delighted when I was given some good news I could share! And just where did the information come from? Our youth told us.

At the end of the last school year, 948 students nationwide responded to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. They let us know how they were doing in relation to certain behaviors, how they were feeling, as well as indicating which risk factors and protective factors were present in their lives. About half reported their sex as female and half reported their sex as male and there was a fairly even split between ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. We have been asking the same questions of high school students in Otsego County since 1997, which gives us good perspective on trends.

Because LEAF’s mission is substance misuse prevention and the reduction of harms associated with substance use and addiction, I’ll stay in my lane here and speak to those things. Here’s some good news: Even though alcohol is historically the most commonly used illegal substance among minors, its use continues to decrease. In 1997, 54% of high school students reported drinking in the last 30 days (considered “current use”). In 2018, it was 28% and in 2021 it was 24%. Paired with that, is encouraging news that teens are making healthier choices about riding in the car with someone who had been drinking. In 1997, nearly a third (29%) had done so and in 2021 that number was down to 9%. We say hooray to teens for healthier choices, and hooray to parents and other adults for helping to influence those choices!

The next bit of good news is related to the use of cannabis. Although the trends in states that commercialized the substance earlier than New York are of great concern, our youth are on a healthy track. In 1997, 27% of teens reported being current users. In 2021, that number had dropped to 15%. In this sample, 12th-grade females reported the highest use rate (18%). And just like with alcohol, fewer teens are riding in the car with someone who has used cannabis. More kudos for healthy decisions!

Heroin, cocaine, inhalants and methamphetamine all continue to show steady declines in use as well. In 2021, the use of those substances ranged between 1% and 5%, with inhalants reported as the commonly used.

More good news reported by the teens suggests they may feel more connected than we might have assumed after at the end of a pandemic school year: 91% of them say that they eat at least some meals with an adult or parent. More than half believe people in their community care about them. In seniors, 83% indicated they have at least one teacher or adult they can talk to about problems. Because connectedness is a very strong protective factor related to addiction, these numbers are encouraging.

We aren’t spiking the ball in the endzone with this news because there is still raging overdose crisis. We want to say the harms associated with substance misuse are preventable. The data shows our youth are making healthier choices than in the past. And this is at least partially because we live in a community where parents, caring adults, youth serving organizations, schools and agencies have been increasingly consistent in their messaging. It makes a difference. And, with that, I’ll just say hats off to everyone who loves a kid and helps them make the very best choices for their success.

Julie Dostal is executive director of The LEAF Council on Alcoholism & Addictions, Oneonta.

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