Islanders consider youth survey results
The Island's community organizations, agencies, public servants, and educators are beginning to comb through the results of the 2004-2005 Martha's Vineyard youth risk behavior survey released last week.
Conducted by the Dukes County Health Council youth task force, the survey was conducted in April in collaboration with the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools and Social Science Research and Evaluation Inc. of Burlington, which collected the data and analyzed the results.
Mike Joyce, who served on the youth task force, helped summarize the survey results detailed in a press release last week. "When I look at the data and all we are trying to do, there is so much here. It is really an incredible experience. It is like a doctoral study," he said.
"We're really at the infant stage on the summary. The task force figured we would get it out to as many people as possible so they can start looking at it, thinking about it, and then after the first of the year, get together and discuss it."
The anonymous and confidential survey focused on areas such as substance use, violence and safety, and stress and mental health. It was largely based on a similar one used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Students in grades 6 through 12 were surveyed, with the high school questionnaire modified for use by middle school students. A total of 1,075 students completed the survey, including 447 middle school and 628 high school students.
Comparable surveys were conducted in 2000 and 2002. "Because the last one was done in 2002, there were not really any surprises," Mr. Joyce said. "The task force did not have any preconceived notions about what the survey would tell us."
Health council member Cindy Doyle spearheaded the youth task force, after expressing her concern to the council that no follow-up survey had been done in 2004. Worried that important youth health issues on the Island were not being addressed, she argued that a new survey was crucial in providing data for tracking trends.
After looking at the survey results last week, Ms. Doyle said, "I was heartened by the fact that, comparing the survey results from 2000 and 2002, things are getting better."
Mr. Joyce also agreed that the trends were encouraging, especially those showing a decline in alcohol and drug use. "Even though some of the percentages on Martha's Vineyard may be higher than those in the state, they are still going in the right direction," he said.
Other survey results that caught Mr. Joyce's attention were increases in substance use in students in grade 8 and 9 as they transition from middle school to high school, and grades 9 and 10. "We have got the youngest, most vulnerable kids interacting with the older kids outside of school. Are there things we as a community can do to help families?" Mr. Joyce asked. "Being a resort area, we have kids who are 14 years old working with kids much older. Does that mean they know where the parties are and nobody's challenging them?"
Among some of the survey's findings:
Alcohol is the substance of choice among middle school and high school students.
The percentage of students who reported ever using alcohol in their lifetime increased from 8 percent in grade 6 to 91 percent in grade 12.
The most commonly identified source of alcohol for middle school students was taking it from their parents or a friend's parents without consent (23 percent) or getting it from friends their own age (20 percent).
Among high school students, the most common source for alcohol was asking someone of legal age to buy it for them (33 percent).
Use of substances other than alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana was comparatively low.
As a former guidance counselor at Edgartown School, Mr. Joyce said he was encouraged that 97 percent of Vineyard middle school respondents and 83 percent of high school respondents reported they were not current cigarette smokers. "Certainly when I was in counseling, an integral part of elementary schools' health curriculum included anti-smoking information, not scare tactics, but good information. I wonder if it has finally caught on," Mr. Joyce said.
The youth risk behavior survey is part of a two-pronged approach in identifying health issues for Island youth and their families. In addition to the survey, researchers from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management of Brandeis University were hired by the task force to complete a needs assessment and help develop a 10-year strategic plan to address the issues. The survey results will be used as a springboard for ideas at a public forum to be held in January.
"I am waiting on the January forum to see what the community response is," said Michael McCarthy, guidance director at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. "I am looking for a community direction. The school is one piece, but it is about getting integrated services to kids and everyone trying to set a direction together. I think it is a good beginning."