By: Julie Mack, Kalamazoo Gazette
Monday, July 25, 2011
Not my kid, you say.
Those national statistics on teenagers getting drunk, taking drugs, having sex? That's California. New York. Detroit. The next town over.
Not here, you think.
Kalamazoo County's Smart Summer public-service campaign is based on some disturbing realities, highlighted by a recent survey of more than 5,000 Kalamazoo County adolescents that suggest teens here aren't that much different from their peers across the state and nation.
Almost half of Kalamazoo County high school juniors report that they've had sex and/or have been drunk at least once. Four out of 10 have tried marijuana, and one of five has been offered an illegal drug or was involved in a drug deal on school property in the past year. A third of Kalamazoo County teens having sex didn't use a condom during their last encounter.
The survey results for ninth- and seventh-graders are just as alarming. A quarter of ninth-graders have been drunk at least once and/or have tried marijuana and/or have had sex.
For seventh-graders, the substance abuse of choice is prescription drugs: One of eight seventh-graders took OxyContin or other narcotic without a doctor's prescription within 30 days of filling out the survey.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey also was administered in Allegan and St. Joseph counties, with similar results. The project was part of a nationwide survey of adolescent behavior that occurs every two years to measure risky behaviors.
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“Everything thinks their community is different, but it's pretty much the same all over,” said Bob Higgins, Safe Kids consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, which helped administer the survey. “They think, ‘It's your community where bad things are happening, not my community.' “
The surveys were administered to seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in 2009-10. Participation was voluntary, but all nine school districts based in Kalamazoo County surveyed their middle-school students; eight school districts, including Kalamazoo and Portage, surveyed their high schoolers.
The high rate of participation in Kalamazoo County — more than 5,200 kids completed the survey — gives more validity to the numbers, say local and state officials.
Claudia Winchester, assistant director forPrevention Works, a nonprofit group that oversees the Kalamazoo County Substance Abuse Task Force and the Smart Summer campaign, said she's confident of the survey's accuracy.
“I've run the numbers by various groups of kids, kids from different schools and diverse backgrounds, and they say it's pretty close to what they'd expect,” Winchester said.
“It sounds about right,” agreed Erin Brewer, who graduated from Vicksburg High School in 2010 and now attends Western Michigan University.
“I think a lot of parents choose not to notice” the risks that teenagers take, Brewer added. “It's pretty surprising what high school kids can get into.”
The push for data
Teen substance abuse in Kalamazoo County made headlines in the summer of 2008 when Amy Bousfield, a popular 18-year-old died of a heroin overdose just a few weeks after her graduation from Portage Central High School.
Bousfield's death put the spotlight on teen heroin addiction in Kalamazoo County's most affluent suburbs. In an eighth-month period between December 2008 and August 2009, six young adults died of heroin or opiate overdoses in Kalamazoo County.
The outcry and panic among parents led to a standing-room-only meeting at Portage City Hall in September 2008, and many of those in attendance joined the Kalamazoo County Substance Abuse Task Force. As part of their work, task force members successfully lobbied local schools to participate in the 2009-10 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
“Out of that crisis” it became apparent that local officials needed more and better local data on substance abuse and other risky behaviors among teens, Winchester said. “When the heroin situation happened, we had nothing” in terms of local statistics.
Getting the survey results “helps us get a pulse on what's going on” locally, she said. “It helps guide our work.
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"For instance, only 17 of Kalamazoo County's 5,200 survey respondents said they had used heroin in the past 30 days. But abuse of other substances, particularly alcohol and marijuana, was rampant: More than 900 of the survey respondents in Kalamazoo County, including a third of the high school juniors, had used alcohol in the previous month, and about 650, or 18 percent, had smoked marijuana.
The survey also pinpointed differences among sociodemographic groups: White teens are more likely to drink alcohol or take pills without a prescription; African-American teens were slightly more likely to smoke marijuana.
Illegal use of prescription drugs was especially pronounced among seventh-graders, according to the survey.
Thirteen percent of seventh-grade survey-takers reported taking OxyContin or another painkiller in the past 30 days without a doctor's prescription. That's more than twice the number who reported using alcohol or marijuana.
“That's one thing I found extremely alarming. ... That the drug of choice is prescription drugs,” Winchester said about the survey results.
It's particularly disturbing, she said, because “those types of drugs are extremely addictive.” They also are “extremely dangerous” when mixed with alcohol, she said.
“On the whole, this area looks pretty good, compared to the state and national averages,” Winchester said. “But if you dig into the numbers, you can see we have pockets” of problems around the county.
She and other local officials also took note of the high numbers — one of five survey-takers — who said they had been offered illegal drugs on school property.
“That's something we've heard so much about — the number of transactions on school property,” Winchester said. “Recently in one of our focus groups, we have a group of kids who came and said they were so tired of that happening at their school.”
Blame the brain
So what can parents do to keep their teenagers safe?
Recent advances in brain research offers some answers — as well as an explanation for why adolescents can be so impulsive and risky in their decisions.
The brain research confirms what parents have long suspected: Teenagers think much differently than adults, and their judgment can be severely compromised.
Starting about 15, the brain undergoes a growth spurt — but not all parts of the brain develop at the same pace.
The network governing socio-emotional functions starts growing first and it happens fairly fast. “That's the system that gives positive rewards for thrill-seeking behavior,” said Daniel Keating, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who specializes in research on the psychology of adolescents.
Meanwhile, the part of the brain governing logic and reason lags behind. “It starts up later and takes much longer to develop,” Keating said. “And that's the system that allows us to judge cause and effect, and to connect our desires to long-term consequences.”
The result? Teens and young adults are impulsive, highly susceptible to peer pressure and are poorly equipped to assess the consequences of their actions.
“You see this pattern of risk-taking behavior until people get into their 20s,” Keating said. “It's basically a brain maturity mismatch.”
From an evolutionary standpoint, having a population group that's assertive, aggressive and fearless — and at the height of their physical prowess — has been an advantage for humans, he said.
State website with full survey results
Clickhere for the full county-by-county results on the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.
“It gave you a group that was willing to find the new hunting ground or go over the mountain,” Keating said. “They'll do things that an older person with more judgment wouldn't do.”
Even 100 years ago, adolescence misbehavior was less pronounced because most teenagers were involved in long, physically demanding work, whether it was on a farm or in a factory, Keating said. “At the end of the day, they were too tired to get into big trouble.”
But in today's world, where teenagers and young adults are expected to spend most of their time in classrooms, “there's a greater reservoir of unspent energy” — not to mention more opportunities in modern society for adolescent mischief-making.
Minimizing the risks
Keating suggests three strategies to help stop teens from making choices that could derail their lives:
— One is to recognize that teenagers aren't thinking about the consequences of their decisions, which means they need explicit and frequent reminders from parents and other adults.
“You need to get them to stop and think about what they're doing,” Keating said about teens.
— The second strategy is to recognize that even when teens do recognize the risks, that may not stop them. “You get kids who say, ‘I know unprotected sex or drinking is a problem,'” but they like the benefits that come with that behavior, Keating said.
In those situations, Keating said the best strategy is to try to minimize the consequences by, say, providing condoms or making sure the teen doesn't drive while he or she is drinking. “It's not a message suited to a public service announcement,” he said, but with some kids “just telling them to say no isn't going to work.”
— The third strategy is to change the context or the environment that teenagers operate in, he said. One example is the creation of graduated driver's licenses, which treats 16-year-old drivers differently than drivers who are a few years older.
“It's finding a way to create a safety zone for kids,” Keating said. “The evidence is pretty strong that just changing the context in an important way” is an effective strategy of “harm reduction.”
Kalamazoo County's Smart Summer program is built around the idea of changing the context, by creating a parent culture that is more attentive to teens' risky behaviors.
The 12-week public-service campaign is promoting three main messages: The need for parents to set boundaries, monitor activities and stay connected with their children.
The overriding message, local and state officials say, is that even though adolescents are asserting their independence, parents are still a major influence.
Higgins said it's hugely important for parents to be vocal about their values and expectations.
“Where kids have clear expectations, they are more likely to live up to those expectations,” he said. “Parents have a role to play and they need to play it.”
Even when kids don't act like it, “most really do listen to their parents, and what parents say really does weigh heavily in their decision-making,” Winchester said. “So you have to keep saying it,” even when it seems like teens aren't listening.
He and Winchester acknowledge that conversations between parents and teens about sex, alcohol and drugs can be uncomfortable. But those talks need to happen, and it's important that they're in-depth, specific — and frequent.
“When you ask parents whether they've talked to their kids, they'll say yes, but usually it's a one-time conversation. It's like, ‘You know drugs are bad for you, right?' “ Winchester said. ““That's not enough. You have to touch on these subjects often.
“It can feel like you're fighting a losing battle,” Winchester said, “but it's a battle worth fighting.”