Survey shows troubling trends among Western Maine teens, tweens

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One in five western Maine middle school students has seriously thought about committing suicide.

The same students were more likely than peers across the state to admit to having huffed paint, smoked marijuana, had sex, gambled or driven with someone drunk or high.

In Oxford County, middle-schoolers were least likely to say they felt like they mattered.

That information and more is in the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, a broad check-in by several state agencies on alcohol and tobacco use and home and school life. It provides a sometimes-troubling snapshot into the lives of local teens and tweens.

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Kids reported risky behaviors at a young age and, for some, lax attitudes from mom and dad.

Western Maine middle-schoolers were least likely to think they’d be caught by parents if they sneaked a drink of alcohol and least likely to think parents would think it was wrong if they were busted.

Western Maine fifth- and sixth-graders were most likely to have known an adult who got drunk or high in the past year, and least likely to have firm rules about drugs and alcohol at home.

“It becomes confusing, and what happens when people become confused — they get a little lost and they’re not sure what to trust,” said Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, who, with Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, will study the results of the survey to determine the messages that ought to be hitting different parts of the state.

“We are concerned that Western Maine has some higher numbers, but there’s other districts that have higher numbers in other areas,” Pinette said. “Overall, every child is important. We want them all to feel valued and have positive self-esteem.”

Dropping numbers, experimenting early

The survey, released last month, is unique to Maine. It’s a marriage of the once-separate national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the Maine Youth Tobacco Survey and the Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey, and done every two years since 2009.

The lengthy list of questions was given to students in grades five to 12 last spring. Most schools participate.

“It’s fascinating data that comes out of it,” Cousins said.

Depending on the question, results are released in one to three tiers: statewide responses-only, responses broken down into eight public health districts or responses on the county level.

The Western Maine public health district covers 17 schools — Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon and Oxford Hills among them.

Some take-aways for fifth- and sixth-graders in Western Maine, according to the survey:

— They worry.

Only 82.5 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel safe at school,” the lowest in any Maine public health district. That number sank over four years; in 2009, 90 percent said yes.

— Among same-aged peers across the state, they were the most likely to have smoked cigarettes, cigars or marijuana in the past month (4.4 percent, 2.7 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively) or tried huffing glue or paint to get high (5.4 percent.)

Huffing and smoking cigarettes and cigars numbers were consistent with two years ago; marijuana use was up.

— They have doubts.

Western Maine fifth- and sixth-graders had the lowest positive responses in the state when asked if they have one or two parents who try to help them succeed.

Four years ago, 92 percent said yes. Last year, only 86.

And, some take-aways for high-schoolers in Western Maine, according to the survey:

— Almost 4 percent had a drink on school property in the past month, a figure tied for the highest response with one other public health district.

— Among same-aged peers across the state, they were the most likely to report they’ve had sex (47 percent), most likely to have used chewing tobacco or snuff in the past 30 days (7.7 percent) and least likely to believe their parents would think it’s wrong for them to smoke marijuana (78.7 percent).

— They also have doubts.

Western Maine high-schoolers had the lowest positive responses in the state to the same question asking if their parents try to help them succeed (77.7 percent). They also had the lowest positive response to the statement: “I have a family that gives me love and support” — 80.7 percent — which, while low, is actually higher than it was four years ago.

Fewer than half of Western Maine students agreed with, “I have a school that cares about kids and encourages them,” also the lowest in Maine.

Western Maine fifth- and sixth-graders had at least nine responses in the survey that stood out as the worst statewide for potentially low self-esteem or high-risk behavior.

High-schoolers had at least 11.

Middle-schoolers had 23.

‘Turbulent time’

Generally, between ages 10 and 12, “in the throes of puberty is just an incredibly turbulent time for youth,” Cousins said.

According to the survey, middle-school students in Western Maine reported:

— Nearly one in three had driven with a driver who had been drinking; one in six had driven with someone who was high — both the highest responses to those questions in the state.

“The big one was the alcohol in the car — that’s alarming and very scary,” said Auburn Middle School Principal Jim Hand. “They’re all alarming and scary numbers. We watch alcohol destroy so many families time and time again.”

— Nearly one-quarter said marijuana was easy to get; students in Androscoggin County had the highest response to that in the state, followed by Oxford County. Among those who had consumed alcohol, 40 percent had their first drink before age 11; again, the highest rate for that age group statewide.

Not surprisingly, among same-aged peers across the state, Western Maine middle-school students were least likely to believe their parents would think smoking marijuana or having a drink every day was wrong, and least likely to say parents had clear rules about drugs and alcohol at home.

“I’m really concerned about when society sees marijuana use as an OK thing, the unintended consequence is that sends a message to our youth that it’s OK,” said Lewiston Middle School Principal Shawn Chabot. “We’ve had a couple cases in the middle school this year where students have gotten some of their parents medical marijuana, and that’s very disturbing.”

— 38.3 percent of all Western Maine students had bet money or something else of value, the highest rate in the state, with Oxford first and Androscoggin second among county-level responses.

— And almost 20 percent — one in five — of all Western Maine students have seriously considered killing themselves, the highest rate in the state. Broken down by gender, for Western Maine girls it was about 25 percent — one out of four girls.

That number’s gone up over four years, as has the ranking; Western Maine wasn’t always No. 1.

“We are very concerned about it,” Pinette said of the suicide numbers.

Because of a new law passed last year, educators around the state are being trained in suicide prevention and how to recognize signs and symptoms, she said, “so we can help detect it sooner and prevent the loss of a child’s life.”

“I think as we educate people more that it’s OK to talk about risk of suicide and thinking about suicide, that kids are finding that it’s OK to report it,” Pinette said.

Statewide, nearly 17 percent of middle-school students said in the survey they’d seriously considered killing themselves, 22 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys. In Western Maine, that split was 26.6 percent of middle school girls and 13.4 percent of middle school boys.

Among high school students statewide, 14.6 had seriously considered ending their lives in the past year.

In his weekly update, Education Commissioner Jim Rier said Thursday that he was “troubled” by the survey data.

“As a parent and grandparent, the reality that youth with such incredible potential feel so overwhelmed and helpless deeply saddens me,” Rier wrote.

Statewide, another 4.8 percent of middle-schoolers and 5.6 percent of high-schoolers said they’d tried the “choking game,” a high with sometimes fatal consequences.

“That’s very concerning,” Pinette said. “That’s how some of our youth — 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds — are dying. They can either do it with a tie or they can do it with a belt, or they can do it with just pressing and holding their hands there. They will get this high and they’ll get light-headed and just fall to the ground. I don’t think it’s often-times intentional; it is a game that they are experimenting (with) and know that kids are doing it.”

Students may try to put up barriers to talking about the pressures they face or to hearing what adults and parents have to say, but “they’re listening and we need to make sure they’re hearing us even if we feel like we’re talking to a wall,” Pinette said.

“Our work is never done.” she said. “There’s so many factors that are involved in it; some of it’s cultural. Some of it’s our time the media has in front of us — music, the role models they see and how they see children behave — and (they) think it’s OK. So we’ve got to stay on task,” she said.

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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