The Iowa State Extension Office is working with school districts in Henry County to address mental health concerns and educate students about the dangers of binge drinking, tobacco and electronic cigarette use and marijuana.
Chris Kemper and Darbee Wellman, with the Extension Office, presented a report about the Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Grant during a board of health meeting on Tuesday, May 14. The Extension Office has received the grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health for the past four years and expect to know next week whether or not they will receive another year of funding.
The main goal of the grant is to reduce substance abuse among the youth of Henry County from five to 18 years old. Wellman teaches a life skills class at elementary schools in the Mt. Pleasant Community School District (MPCSD), and Kempker presents a supplemental program to sixth-graders in health class where she talks about decision making, tobacco and smoking prevention, dealing with stress, learning how to communicate and other social skills. During the 2018-2019 academic year, the Extension Office reached 287 youth in Henry County.
Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services of Southeast Iowa (ADDS) presents a similar program at WACO, Winfield-Mt. Union and New London school districts, Kempker said.
Kempker and Wellman also informed the board of health about the results of the Iowa Youth Survey, which Henry County schools participate in every two years. The state-level results were released earlier this year.
Students were asked questions about binge drinking, tobacco use, electronic cigarette use, marijuana use and whether students had made plans to kill themselves within the last 12 months.
Students were asked if they had drunk more than five alcoholic drinks in the past month; whether they had used an e-cigarette; and whether they had used marijuana. The results showed that from 2012 to 2018, binge drinking decreased by 36 percent among Iowa youth. Students who had drunk one alcoholic drink in the last 30 days had decreased 15.8 percent; however, from 2015 to 2018, eighth-grade students who reported drinking increased by 35 percent.
“So, we’re seeing youth drinking at a younger age,” Kempker said.
Tobacco use has also decreased steadily by 57 percent from 2012 to 2018; however, 37 percent of 11th-graders reported using an electronic cigarette.
“E-cigarette use is becoming an issue and an epidemic among youth, with an estimated 1.5 million youth having used or tried e-cigarettes,” Kempker said. “From everything I’ve heard, the high school is having a major issue with it as are all schools.”
Wellman said that when she asks fifth-graders about what electronic cigarettes are, they are able to tell her.
While the perception of electronic cigarettes among youth is that it’s not harmful, Kempker said it’s the opposite. One JUUL, an electronic cigarette, contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, and since nicotine changes the brain’s chemistry, youth are more likely to become addicted to other substances in the future.
“I know several kids around here who have said they are addicted or know kids who are addicted,” Kempker said.
Marijuana use has remained relatively stable since 2012, Kempker said.
The most alarming part of the study was that 53 percent of students responded that they had made plans to kill themselves within the last 12 months, Kempker said.
One way the Extension Office is trying to combat mental health issues among youth is by implementing a freshman orientation day. They take eighth-graders to the high school in the spring, give them a tour, have them meet with the school counselor and some teachers to ease their anxiety and answer questions about transitioning from the middle school to high school.
Students at the high school also organized a mental health awareness night; however, the weather didn’t cooperate and it was canceled.
“I know there was a really big need for it, but we just couldn’t make it happen,” Kemper said. “We’re planning for October if our grant comes through.”
Finally, the Extension Office is working to educate adults in the community on how to work with the youth in a positive way. They trained 92 teachers and paraeducators on Adverse Childhood Experience s (ACEs) and resiliency training this year.
Kempker said this has been well-received by the school administration as they try to implement trauma-informed care into their curriculum.
“We’re just finding that kids are having more substantial issues at a younger age. They’re not the same kids of 10 or 15 years ago,” Kempker said.