The results of the most recent Student Health and Risk Prevention Strategy are in, and the results point to some worrisome trends in Moab’s youth.
The SHARP survey is administered to students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 every two years. The survey asks questions a variety of questions about their feelings regarding drug and alcohol use and sexual activity. It also asks questions about students’ relationships with their parents and neighborhood and other adults.
According to Tiffany VanSickle, the Prevention Coordinator for Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, the number of students in grades 10 and 12 who participated in the survey were low enough that the numbers may not be reliable. Still, there was some concerning information.
The 2015 survey showed a marked increase in the number of Grand County High School students who report having used heroin at some point in their life. “Typically when we look at a drug like heroin, it’s not a drug of first use,” VanSickle said, adding that people who have used heroin have likely used alcohol, tobacco or marijuana previously.
Those types of drugs, along with e-cigarettes, have a decreased perception of harm, VanSickle said. “They’re perceived as safe,” she said. “So kids are more likely to use them.”
Though alcohol and marijuana may not have a significant impact on an adult who uses them, VanSickle said that teenagers are much more susceptible to creating a lifelong dependency due to the processes happening in their brain.
Recent studies have shown that adolescent brains are going through a process called “neural pruning.” VanSickle said this process involves the brain sorting through all of the connections that it has made since birth to determine what’s important and what isn’t. “It’s creating a hierarchy of survival,” she said.
During this process, the brain uses dopamine responses to determine what’s important to hang onto. Because drugs, alcohol and tobacco cause exceedingly high levels of dopamine in the body, the brain can identify those substances as important to its survival. Which can lead to a lifelong struggle with addiction.
“It literally changes the structure of the brain,” VanSickle said. “It makes the brain think the drug is the most important thing in the world.”
Because of this, recent studies have shown that children who begin drinking before the age of 13 have a 45% chance of developing a dependency on alcohol. However, someone who waits until the age of 21 have only a 7% chance of developing a substance abuse problem.
VanSickle said there has also been a large nationwide increase in the use of electronic cigarettes, and Grand County is no exception. Again, VanSickle said that part of the reason they’re so popular is the fact that there is a decreased perception of risk associated with them, due to the fact that you can purchase nicotine free flavors.
However, VanSickle said that because the flavors are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there’s no guarantee that the flavors are actually nicotine free. They have also recently been linked to a condition known as popcorn lung, a serious lung problem that can result in the need for a lung transplant.
“A lot of the flavorings used in e-cigarettes have been approved by the FDA for consumption,” VanSickle said. “However, they haven’t been approved to be inhaled.”
Prevention needs to be a community-wide effort, beginning at home, Van Sickle said. “We need to create connectedness and close relationships to help keep kids from developing these habits,” she said. “Just like you want to do whatever you can to protect your kids from diabetes or any other disease, you want to protect them from substance abuse disorder too.”
VanSickle suggested that parents concentrate on bonding with their children, setting clear boundaries and monitoring them closely so they have less free time to use drugs or alcohol. She also suggested letting them do their own research about the effects of underage drinking and drug use. “Explain to them that their brain is growing a lot at this age,” she said. “They need to do whatever they can to protect it.”