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Teen drug and alcohol use: Take a stand
By NICOLE MAXWELL and KEN MAAZ
For The Beachcomber
Last month, the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA) released results from its recent community attitudes survey. More than 740 of the adults on the Island took the survey, making it statistically representative of your beliefs about alcohol and drug use among Vashon youth. Two results were encouraging to us: 84 percent of you believe youth alcohol and marijuana use is wrong, and 74 percent said alcohol use by Vashon teens is a serious problem.
Conversely, more than 15 percent of you do not believe youth alcohol and marijuana use is wrong and more than 25 percent of you do not believe alcohol use is a serious problem. We can understand why Islanders might believe that. Vashon youth appear to be well-adjusted; not many drop out of school; they don’t commit crimes and they are generally high achievers. It would be easy to say, “Let kids experiment, and let them use where I know they are safe, at my home or at least on our Island.”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. The most recent Healthy Youth Survey (HYS) administered in 2010 revealed that 27 percent of 10th graders reported using alcohol in the last 30 days and 24 percent used marijuana — very close to the state averages of 28 percent and 24 percent. For 12th graders those numbers jump to 58 percent having consumed alcohol, and 40 percent having used marijuana in the last 30 days — alarming rates by any standard, but significantly above the state averages of 40 percent and 26 percent.
Why, if our kids are doing so well, do we care about their use of alcohol and marijuana? Some of you will object to teens using alcohol and marijuana on moral or religious grounds. Some of you will object on legal grounds. Others may need a different reason to object to teen substance use. At VARSA we take a stand against teen alcohol and marijuana use because it is a public and individual health issue.
Youth who use alcohol before the age of 15 are four to seven times more likely to become addicted as an adult. According to the HYS, the average age of first use of alcohol by Vashon 12th graders was just under 14 years, and the average age of first use of marijuana was 14.6 years. For 10th graders and eighth graders who use, it was even younger.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the adolescent brain does not fully develop until one enters his or her 20s. It is rapidly developing and changing and becoming the brain of adulthood. Alcohol use can interfere with this development, impairing growth and the integrity of certain brain structures. Research shows that with teen alcohol and drug use comes increased risks to teens for suicide, depression, automobile accidents, contracting sexually transmitted infections and sexual assaults, as well as other problems.
Of survey takers, 68 percent of you reported believing the community is tolerant of teen alcohol use. If this is true it makes it more difficult to speak up against underage drinking and easier for teens to believe it is acceptable.
At VARSA we hope we can get the 15 percent of you who do not believe youth alcohol and marijuana use is wrong and the 25 percent of you who do not see it as a serious problem to understand the serious health risks. And we hope we can get the 74 percent of you who believe it is a serious problem to stand up against it. We are determined to help you do that. At VARSA we believe we are all teachers, and it is important to consider what we will teach every day. The messages we send our kids shape their beliefs and guide their decisions. As individuals and as a community we either tell our kids it is alright for them to drink and smoke marijuana, or we tell them it is not acceptable. Not acceptable because we care about them, because we love them and because we want them to be the best and healthiest they can be today and as adults.
Please join VARSA to help stop teen substance use.
— Nicole Maxwell, ND, is the owner of Maxwell Family Medicine and a VARSA Coalition Member. Ken Maaz is the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services and the VARSA project director.