Maine schoolchildren are drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes less, but are struggling more with bullying and thoughts of suicide, according to the recently released Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.
The survey was based on anonymous responses from about 63,000 public school students in grades 5-12, and has been conducted every other year since 2009 by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The number of high school students who reported having at least one drink of alcohol in their lifetime dropped from 59.4 percent (in 2011) to 54.3 percent in 2013 and fell from 19 to 15.8 percent for middle school students in that time period.
Students who reported smoking cigarettes at least once in the previous 30 days decreased from 15.5 percent to 12.9 percent among high-schoolers and from 4.2 to 3.2 percent for middle-schoolers in that same period.
Guy R. Cousins, LCSW, LADC, CCS, director of the state’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, says he was very encouraged by the downward trend in drinking and smoking.
“I think it can be attributed in part to an increase in education and also to the messages they are getting from the people in their lives, about prevention and the risks involved (with alcohol and cigarette use),” he says.
Cousins says such efforts should continue, but attention should also be given to other issues that appear to be on the rise. According to the 2013 survey, 14.6 percent of high school students (up from 12.7 in 2011) and 16.8 percent of middle-schoolers (up from 14.5 percent) have seriously considered attempting suicide. That number was greater for girls than boys (18.2 percent of females compared to 11.1 percent of males in the high-school survey; and 22.4 percent of girls compared to 11.5 percent of boys among middle-schoolers).
The percentage of students who reported being bullied at school increased from 48.1 percent to 51.6 percent among middle-schoolers and from 24 percent to 25.8 percent among high school students. That number was higher among girls than boys (with 56.1 percent of middle-school-aged girls responding yes versus 47.4 percent of boys; in the high school, 29.3 of females said yes, as compared to 22.5 of males).
Cousins says this generation has added pressures that result from technology, including media and social media.
“When you look at the higher rates of suicidal thoughts and bullying, I think there’s a direct correlation, in my mind, with the social media explosion,” Cousins says. “I think some of it has to do with the negative messaging youth are getting about their adequacy.”
Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., co-founder and board member of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and women, says it’s important to distinguish the generic term “bullying” from behaviors like sexual coercion and harassment.
“Once we do that, it becomes clear that we need to consider the impact of pervasive objectification and sexualization of girls and women in media as a factor,” Brown says.
“Other studies link media consumption of sexualization to depression and lower self-esteem in girls, as well as to the normalizing of harassment and sexual violence among youth. We know such images are more pervasive and are reaching younger children than ever before,” Brown says. “We have to start taking seriously the impact of such media, not only in the ways girls feel about themselves, but in the ways boys treat girls and the ways girls take out their anger, frustration and fear on the safest target available – other girls.”
Cousins says mental health professionals can help counter negative messaging with similar strategies that have been used with other prevention work. “The emphasis is on – what are the things we can do to build capacity around the positive internal messages people and youth are getting from their environment, and what do we do to support it, enhance it, and perpetuate it,” Cousins says.
“Social media has the mechanism to pull communities together but it also has the ability to help people feel more isolated,” Cousins says.
There can be a disconnect in the way children act face-to-face with someone, versus in a virtual world, and children may say or do something online that they wouldn’t normally say face-to-face.
“We need to make sure we are teaching kids how to build relationships, whether it’s a face-to-face relationship or a virtual one,” he says.
“The Internet is such a great resource, but one of the parts that is challenging is that at times, there is an impersonalization that Internet relationships create, and it allows people to completely ignore the social norms or social morays of what would be considered an appropriate interaction,” Cousins says.
By Pamela Berard