Work to do
The results of the Dukes County Health Council's youth risk survey, described in news stories last week and this morning, may be taken as modestly encouraging. In some behaviors, Island students in grades six through 12 make sounder choices than do their peers in mainland Massachusetts. And trends since the beginning of the decade are encouraging, in that some behaviors - use of tobacco products, for instance - appear to be on the decline, although they still exceed the levels state-wide for some age groups, and tobacco products other than cigarettes appear to be growing in popularity.
But the fractions of Island young people using alcohol and marijuana are alarmingly high, as is the extent to which students, especially in the high school grades, have intercourse or engage in other sexual activities, condoms or no condoms.
These survey results are revealing of what's going on among Island 11- to 18-year-olds, although they may not present a definitive picture. As the youth task force remarked about the results, "Survey organizers stress that the results can present a skewed picture of Vineyard youth, because much of the data concerns risky behaviors such as substance use and violence. It is important to emphasize the many positive aspects of adolescent life, the fact that these issues are not confined solely to youth, and that they are community issues that require the attention of all community members and organizations."
True, and important, but these results demand a careful attempt to understand the prompts that lead young men and women to accept these behavior risks and to conceive of effective methods of persuading impulsive and impressionable teenagers to think more carefully before choosing.
The health council's youth task force has begun an effort to develop a response to what the survey shows us. They have in mind a 10-year plan to turn the bad news around and turn the short-term positive trends revealed by the survey data into long-term success for Island young people.
"The survey is one step in the Dukes County Health Council's youth task force's efforts to prepare an Island-wide assessment of community health needs," task force leaders explained. "The results are expected to help community residents, agencies, and other organizations plan and evaluate programming to support young people. The information can also help parents understand the challenges that their children face and encourage them to work in planning response strategies."
As we consider where to aim efforts to counter these behavioral tendencies, of course schools, social service organizations, the police, and the courts come to mind. But, there is good reason to think that these broader community efforts are inadequate to the task. Not because they are indifferent or incompetent or unsupported, but because they are playing catch-up on troubling behaviors, for which parents and families are the first responders, the front line, and in some cases the inspiration for the bad choices their children make. These families, no matter how they are composed, will need support, education, and resources to help them lead their children away from the decisions that put them at risk.