Published October 16, 2019


WAKEFIELD – According to data from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2019:

• 17 Galvin Middle School students reported they used marijuana during the past month

• 12.8 percent of Wakefield Memorial High School students binge drank in the past month

• 43 WMHS students reported they attempted suicide one or more times in the past year

• 23 Galvin students reported that they have attempted suicide in their lifetime

• 82 WMHS students reported sexual contact against their will during the past 12 months

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) monitors a number of health-risk behaviors among youth, including alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use, risky sexual behaviors, self-harm and bullying. At last night’s School Committee meeting, Wakefield Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator Catherine Dhingra highlighted some of the data from the 2019 YRBS.

“I work to promote our citizens’ and young people’s health by implementing programs that provide access to mental health care and substance use treatment,” Dhingra said. “In addition, I bring different community partners together including police, school, town leaders, youth and parents who realize its vital to collaborate to implement programs we know make youth less likely to use substances here in Wakefield.”

She noted that the survey was administered in April 2019 to WMHS student body (9th-12th grade) and Galvin students (7th & 8th grade only). The YRBS is a national survey that was developed by the Centers for Disease Control. It has been administered in Wakefield approximately every two years since 2011. In 2019, the YRBS was administered as a regional collaboration with Middlesex League schools.

Dhingra early on dispelled any doubts about the validity of the data collected.

“According to the CDC, research indicates that data of this nature may be gathered as credibly from adolescents as from adults,” she said. Internal reliability checks are incorporated to help identify the small percentage of students who falsify their answers, she explained. Surveys believed to contain false responses are discarded.

“Understanding the prevalence of risky behaviors among our teens can help us understand where we need to strengthen our community,” Dhingra said.

Diving into the substance abuse numbers, Dhingra shared a bit of good news. Past 30-day tobacco use is down at the high school, with 3.7 percent of students reporting that they smoked in the last month.

The news was not as good with regard to vaping. At the high school, 26.3 percent (239 students) reported that they had used an electronic vapor product at least one day in the past month. But that number was down from 34.6 percent in 2017. Dhingra attributed some of the drop to the fact that education on the dangers of vaping is beginning to work.

The patterns for tobacco and vaping were similar at the Galvin Middle School, but with much lower numbers. Only 0.2 percent of 7th and 8th graders reported smoking tobacco inn the past 30 days. But 56 Galvin students (3.8 percent) admitted to e-cigarette use in the last month.

Moving to marijuana, Dhingra noted that 23 percent (201 students) at the high school reported using marijuana at least once in the past 30 days. “That’s almost five school buses full of students who regularly consume marijuana,” she observed.

Four percent (17) Galvin 7th and 8th graders reported using marijuana in the last 30 days.

Fourteen Galvin students (2.1 percent) reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, less than half the number that admitted drinking in the 2017 YRBS.

Of WMHS students, 25.7 percent reported consuming alcohol in the last month, while 12.8 percent (113) students binge drank in the past month.

Dhingra pointed out that many students and adults assume that high school-age drinking is much more prevalent than it actually is. She stressed the importance of dispelling the notion that “everyone is doing it.”

Dhingra talked about the YRBS measurement related to “perception of risk of harm.” As the perception of risk goes up for behaviors like substance use, she said, use tends to go down.

In 2019, 78 percent of WMHS students viewed alcohol use as harmful, according to the YRBS, while only 49 percent saw smoking marijuana as harmful. Ninety percent of WMHS students see smoking cigarettes as harmful and 93 percent see misuse of prescription drugs as harmful.

Among Galvin 7th and 8th graders, 82 percent view alcohol use as harmful and 76 percent believe marijuana is harmful.

As Dhingra discussed some of the strategies to address substance use among Wakefield students, she was joined by Director of Athletics, Health and Wellness Brendan Kent.

Kent said that health education at all grade levels has greatly increased over the past five years and a new curriculum has been introduced that focuses on substance abuse prevention and social and emotional wellness. Dhingra talked about initiatives to increase parent involvement, school-based diversion programs and changing norms and traditions such as senior night.

Moving to mental health, Dhingra noted that the YRBS showed that 14 percent of WMHS students had seriously considered suicide in the last year, while 43 students reported that they attempted suicide one or more times in the past year. At the Galvin 19 percent had considered suicide in the last 12 months. Twenty-three Galvin students reported that they had attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Dhingra and Kent discussed some of the mental health strategies being used in the schools, including the establishment of a district-wide a Social-Emotional Learning Plan, the INTERFACE program which matches students with mental health professionals, increased programming with Eliot Crisis Management and the establishment of a student support website. Over 100 Wakefield Public Schools faculty members are trained in youth mental health first aid. A full-time Adjustment Counselor position was created at the high school and a program to screen for risk of suicide was implemented at the 8th grade level and is planned for 10th grade students.

Regarding violence and bullying, roughly the same number of WMHS students (16 percent) said that they had been bullied either online or in school. Those figures were higher than averages reported in the Middlesex League as a whole.

Thirty-eight percent of Galvin students reported being victims of online bullying, while 25.5 percent reported in-school bullying.

At the high school, 9.6 percent of students reported sexual contact against their will.

Moving to “protective factors,” 63 percent of WMHS students said that they had at least one trusted teacher/adult at school that they could talk to. Eighty-three percent said that there was a parent/guardian or other adult that they felt comfortable talking to.

Dhingra said that Wakefield continues to be a leader in addressing the issues raised in the YRBS, and other communities often look to Wakefield for guidance on building resources to increase protective factors for youth.

School Committee members asked about any connections between social media, bullying, unwanted sexual contact and suicidal thought. In response to another question, Kent and School Superintendent Douglas Lyons said that efforts are ongoing to make sure that students have at least one trusted teacher or other adult at school that they can talk to.