SOUTHINGTON — Town leaders are encouraged by the results of a youth substance abuse survey conducted early last year but said teens are facing challenges during the pandemic.
Every two years, the Southington Town-Wide Effort to Promote Success (STEPS) coalition conducts a survey on risky behaviors and substance use among local youth. It was conducted by the Search Institute in February 2020 and included students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
STEPS began collecting data on teen drinking, sexual activity, shoplifting and more in 2009. Since then, rates have dropped, in some cases by as much as half, according to the surveys.
“It looks like overall, Southington youth are making better choices since our prevention efforts have been taking place,” said Megan Albanese, the town’s youth prevention coordinator. “Now we have a nice chunk of data that we are really able to compare to see where we are moving the needle in our prevention efforts.”
STEPS prevention efforts
The group combats substance abuse by encouraging a number of assets, such as positive peer influence, family support, constructive use of time and personal skills. The asset-building concept is supported by the public school district as well as non-profit groups in town such as the YMCA.
Albanese said students learn and take advice best from their peers.
“We have a great group of 35 youth council students who work to make prevention a priority,” she said. “They push these campaigns out to their peers and they’re a dynamo.”
The group has also distributed liquor stickers for alcohol bottles, helped police with alcohol age limit enforcement and supported a local law increasing the tobacco minimum age to 21.
STEPS leaders said the coronavirus lockdowns have restricted interaction and makes prevention efforts more difficult. There are also more teens home for more hours in the day, increasing the risk that they’ll dip into their parents’ liquor cabinet.
Mark Pooler, YMCA executive director and STEPS advisory board chairman, said he’s heard from teachers, guidance counselors and principals about the difficulties teens are facing. Some youth are faced with social isolation, lack of motivation and a disruption in their normal social activities.
“We haven’t been able to connect as many kids as possible,” Pooler said. “There is nothing that beats face-to-face communication and face-to-face time with positive role models… You lose something with the virtual life that we’re living.”
He expected that the group’s next survey might have less encouraging results than the one released this month.
“We’ll see some dips in our results that relate directly to this pandemic,” Pooler said. “Kids are struggling right now.”
Vaping, trusting adults
Albanese said the survey gives STEPS leaders an indication of where they need to focus prevention efforts. Some substances weren’t included in the initial 2009 survey, such as vaping and prescription drug abuse, but have been added since.
Reported prescription drug use dropped from three percent in 2014 to two percent in 2020.
About 20 percent of eleventh grade students reported vaping nicotine in the past 30 days in the most recent study. Twelve percent reported vaping cannabis/THC.
Reported vaping rates rise the older students get.
“We’re still seeing an increase in vaping,” Albanese said.
More than half of Southington students surveyed said they had a trusted adult in their life. While Albanese was glad that number had risen over the years, she’s hoping to make progress in that area.
“We’re still not happy where it is. We want it higher,” Albanese said. “We want to make sure they all have a trusted adult.”