Responses from a voluntary, anonymous survey on risky teen behavior show suicide remains a pressing concern, along with underage vaping, which is mistakenly believed to be less risky than smoking cigarettes.
“This survey provides a tremendous amount of data that is essential in following trends and developing programs and plans moving forward to meet the needs of our youth,” Robin Johnson, medical director of El Paso County Public Health said in an email.
According to the fall 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, released this week, one in five El Paso County students said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The statewide average is 17 percent.
And almost 16 percent of El Paso County teens indicated they had made a plan about how they would take their lives, compared with 13 percent statewide.
The county in recent years has trended “slightly higher” than statewide rates in terms of teen suicide, said Megan Haynes, Teen Suicide Prevention Planner for El Paso County Public Health. Experts had identified a 27-month epidemic in El Paso County that began in February 2015 and continued through April 2017 with 40 suicides of adolescents age 17 and under. The numbers have declined dramatically since then.
“Yes, these things are concerning,” Haynes said of the survey results. “It reminds us to be vigilant in moving forward in our efforts to orient ourselves with prevention and to have a community response to this issue.”
The Healthy Kids survey is conducted every other year as a project of three state departments: Public Health and Environment, Education and Human Services. The University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus and a community advisory committee also are involved.
The survey asks middle and high school students about their use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, eating habits, self-harm, sexual activity, relationships, bullying, violence, weapons use, behaviors of adults in their lives and other topics.
Schools, agencies and organizations use the data to target education and prevention programs for youth and adults.
Parental objections in recent years over intrusiveness and privacy led many school districts to not distribute the questionnaire, and many parents to not allow their children to take it.
In conservative-leaning El Paso County, not enough students participated in 2015, the last time the survey was conducted, to produce a valid data set.
Since then, public health officials made a concerted effort to get school districts on board, said Danielle Oller, spokeswoman for El Paso County Public Health.
Still, just under 2,000 local students filled out the fall of 2017 survey out of about 29,400 middle school students and 26,500 high school students countywide.
The survey uses weighting to “show how samples represent the larger population,” said Mariana del Hierro, Healthy Kids Colorado Survey coordinator with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“So although it seems like a small percentage of the total number of middle and high school students in El Paso County, the sample size is representative of the overall El Paso county youth population,” del Hierro said.
The 2017 survey marks the first time that the state achieved state weighted data, and therefore comparable data through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior national survey, she added.
One encouraging part, Haynes said, was that local adolescents scored high on “protective factors,” that help ward off suicide attempts and other risky behavior, such as good access to mental health care, connectedness to family, other trusting adults and friends, and the ability to problem-solve and be resilient when facing life’s setbacks.
“These things we are hopeful about,” Haynes said, “such as the percentage that had someone to talk to when they were feeling sad, 81 percent. We recognize that as an opportunity, as to how we can develop that connectedness.”
Added training for adults who want to become mentors to help prevent teen suicide is one possible solution that will be looked at, she said.
The survey also shows that while teen cigarette smoking rates have declined, youth are vaping nicotine, or smoking e-cigarettes, more than ever before. Nearly one-quarter of local respondents indicate they currently vape.
But what’s “very alarming” is that the rate for youth having ever tried vaping — 44 percent — is triple what it was in 2013, said Dacia Hudson, program manager for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership of El Paso County Public Health.
Statewide, about half of Colorado high school students have tried vaping nicotine, don’t see it as risky and think vaping products are easy to get, even though it is illegal to purchase them as minors.
Usage among Colorado youth is twice the national average and the highest rate of 37 states surveyed, according to the CDC.
Perhaps what’s most disturbing about vaping as well as underage marijuana use, Hudson said, is teen perception that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The perceived risk is much less with vaping, than with cigarette smoking,” she said. “We’re trying to increase our education efforts to dispel these myths that vaping is safer.”
Some 90 percent of the flavored liquid used in vaping contains nicotine, which is addictive, and cancer-causing chemicals, she said.
The percentage of teens using marijuana hasn’t changed since the 2013 survey — about one in five — but about half statewide believe marijuana is risky to use, too easy to get and shouldn’t be used by minors.
Adolescents also have a lower perception of risks associated with using prescription and illicit drugs, driving under the influence and bingeing.
“This potentially sets them up to use and for poor outcomes when they use,” Johnson said.
El Paso County continues to have issues with adolescent weight, activity and food, with 27 percent of youth being obese and only 50 percent getting the recommended amount of exercise.
Also, 60 percent spend three or more hours a day on electronic screen time and 16 percent say they are hungry due to lack of food at home.
“The common themes across the board, regardless of the risky behavior, are the importance of protective factors and the need to address the perception of risk,” Oller said.
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