U-CF hosts tough conversation about student depression, alcohol and drug use
● By J. Chambless
From left: Leah Reider, Director of Pupil Services; John Sanville, Superintendent; and John Nolen, Assistant Superintendent, presented the PA Youth Survey data.
The mood was somber as members of the Unionville-Chadds Ford administration reviewed data on student mental illness, alcohol and drug usage in front of a handful of community members on Feb. 27 in the Patton Middle School auditorium.
The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) is a statewide questionnaire distributed by districts to 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th graders every two years. District and charter school use is voluntary, as is student participation. Statewide, 973 of 1,666 schools participated. All 12 Chester County school districts took part, and around half of those students completed the survey.
The questions are designed to provide data that helps communities identify and address root causes of potentially dangerous behavior. The most recent report is from the fall of 2017.
Questions on sadness and self-worth were designed to uncover potential mental health issues. On average, U-CF middle and high school students self-reported that 26 percent felt sad or depressed most days over the past 12 months. Patton Middle School responses showed a gradual rise every two years, from an average of 15 percent in 2011.
The district takes no solace in the fact that U-CF actually measured more favorably than both the county and the state. Statewide, 40 percent of 10th and 12th graders reported sadness or depression most days. “That’s a mental health crisis in the commonwealth, in my opinion,” said school superintendent John Saville. Regarding the district’s students, “one in four students walking around feeling this way is heartbreaking,” he added.
Director of Pupil Services Leah Reider talked about risks for suicide. The survey asked students about stopping regular activities due to sadness. It also asked if suicide was considered, planned or actually attempted. Since students self-reported, answers depended on how they personally interpreted the question. The survey showed that 12 percent of 10th graders reported that they considered suicide, and 4 to 5 percent in grades 8, 10, and 12 attempted suicide.
“So, looking at a typical class of 8th graders, there is someone in the room who has indicated they attempted suicide,” Reider said. Again, U-CF compared on the lower side to both the county and state.
In 2017, half of high school seniors reported drinking over the past 30 days (which was higher than county and state averages). Seventeen percent of 10th graders, 7 percent of 8th graders, and 4 percent of 6th graders also reported alcohol use. Of the students who did drink, one in three reported taking the alcohol from their homes.
Twenty-nine percent of seniors and 6 percent of 10th graders reported marijuana use over the past 30 days, higher than the county and state averages.
According to Sanville, mental health, alcohol and marijuana are the district’s and community’s three biggest challenges derived from the survey. He said he is concerned about students drinking and driving, as well as their general attitude that pot smoking is “no big deal.”
Reider talked about the opioid epidemic. Student self-reported use is in line with the county, with 1 percent of 6th and 8th graders reporting non-prescribed use. The number is smaller in the high school. Reider said that the student or family member may have been prescribed pain medicine for an injury, and then the excess is used in a manner not intended by the doctor.
“There are lots of ways to dispose of the drugs, rather than allowing them to sit in your cabinet where they have the potential for misuse and abuse,” Reider said. “There’s lots of drop-off stations, specifically the police stations in our community. It can be completely anonymous, almost like a mailbox.”
According to the data, vape use is continuing to rise, with 10th and 12th grade use at 7 percent and 33 percent, respectively. “Nationally, vaping is an epidemic, and we’re seeing it here,” Sanville said. He explained that the district has focused on vape education, including changing curriculum, teacher training and counseling.
“All that being done, all the outreach that all of us are doing, I would suspect -- and am afraid --that these numbers are continuing to rise,” Sanville said.
He said kids do not see vaping as unhealthy, thinking that “It’s only water vapor -- isn’t water a good thing?” Students don’t always realize that many vapes contain nicotine.
“Kids will vape things and they don’t know what they’re vaping,” Sanville said. “It’s the equivalent to a pack of cigarettes in, really, moments.”
Sanville explained that the district is addressing all of these issues. Last year, U-CF changed its discipline policy to include mandatory counseling for substance use. Additional social workers and school psychologists have been hired. The middle and high school principals are required to address the PAYS data in their annual school action plans. Safe2Say, an anonymous 24/7 tip line to report individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others, was launched this year. And the district tries to be transparent about the issues by sharing the PAYS results with the community. “These items are of great concern for all of us,” Sanville said.
Parents should contact their family doctor or school counselor if they have concerns. They can also send general questions to the Wellness Committee at email@example.com.
“Whether or not the numbers look good in comparison locally, or they look good in comparison to state or national numbers -- because a lot of them do -- that’s not the important thing,” Sanville said. “The important thing is we’re getting information about our kids. Unless all these numbers are zero, then we have work to do.”
More areas are covered in the PAYS data analysis, and the data is available on the district’s website (www.UCFSD.org) under the Wellness, and then Wellness Resources section. The state and county reports are on the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency site (www.PCCD.pa.gov), under the Research and Child Advocacy section.