Study shows prescription drug use rising among local youths
According to a recent round of surveys conducted by the Southeastern Regional Action Council, high school students in the region have nearly tripled their illicit use of prescription drugs in the past few years.
“This is our first data showing a prescription drug use increase like this,” said community educator Angela Duhaime, who added that SERAC has been keeping tabs on students’ drug use for almost 10 years.
In surveys SERAC used when it applied for and received a federal Drug-Free Communities grant in 2014, 15.8 percent of 3,082 students said they’d used alcohol in the past 30 days. An additional almost 14 percent pointed to marijuana as a drug they’d used.
Just more than 4 percent reported having taken prescription drugs illicitly.
This time around — with a sample size of 3,299 students — those percentages decreased for alcohol use to 11.4 percent and for marijuana to 12.1 percent. But the use of prescription drugs rose to 11 percent of those surveyed.
“Eleven percent — it’s not a crazy number,” Duhaime said. “But it confirms the bigger picture of what’s going on in our region.”
In the four-year span from 2012 through 2015, the number of fatal drug overdoses in Connecticut more than doubled. The vast majority of those deaths were linked to opioids.
Duhaime, who each year updates SERAC’s plan of action for the five-year grant, said she’d been ready to send out another plan aimed at knocking down alcohol and marijuana use. Then she saw the latest figures.
“With self-reported surveys, there’s always a social desirability bias,” she said of the surveys’ limitations. “People are a little less likely to report behaviors that may make them look bad.”
But with 80 to 100 percent participation in each surveyed school — and results consistent with those found in surveys conducted across the nation — Duhaime said the findings were enough to warrant change.
Over the next couple weeks, Duhaime will fill the action plan with steps to combat illicit prescription drug use in the eight-community region the grant serves.
“We’ve done very well on education regarding the dangers of alcohol,” she said. “But has there really been a lot of prescription drug education? Maybe (the increase) is because students have more access to prescription drugs. But maybe it’s because the drugs seem safe because they’re legal, they’re medicine.”
Duhaime said while she’s still hammering out the details, she has several ideas regarding what the new plan could include.
SERAC could educate residents about alternative pain relief options and encourage local businesses and colleges to offer yoga or other stress and pain relief classes, she said.
Its members could work with local leaders to create support groups and drug-free activities for youth and to limit the number of pain clinics that exist in the region.
The organization might ask politicians to create legislation that would ensure medications ordered online end up in the right hands. And its employees could distribute medication lockboxes to homes for similar reasons, Duhaime said.
But all of that is not to say SERAC plans to stop its work to prevent alcohol and marijuana abuse — especially given the strides it made in its first two years of administering the Drug-Free Communities grant.
SERAC, Duhaime explained, has funding it uses to give out mini-grants so communities can form their own prevention committees and fund education and other proactive measures.
The nonprofit also applied recently for a grant that would allow it to tackle alcohol use among at-risk youth.
“Hopefully the committees can keep the momentum going at the local level with alcohol and marijuana awareness and prevention,” Duhaime said, “and we can use the federal funding to prevent prescription drug use on a larger level.”
Drug use among high school students in southeastern Connecticut
Percentage of students who said they used the listed drugs within the 30 days prior to taking the survey.
The 2014 sample includes 3,082 students from seven local high schools who were interviewed between 2009 and 2013. The 2016 sample includes 3,299 students from four high schools who were interviewed primarily in 2015.
Data source: Southeastern Regional Action Council
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