The pandemic could have had one positive effect on young Hoosiers: less substance use. A August report from Indiana University found that adolescent cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use in the last two years reached some of the lowest rates in more than 30 years.
That 2022 Indiana Youth Surveyconducted by Prevention Insights at IU’s School of Public Health, also found that vaping among adolescents declined from 2020 to 2022.
“Before the pandemic, vaping was a huge concern,” said Darian Benson, reporter for WFYI and Side Effects Public Media, speaking during a speech Twitter Spaces conversation 21 Sep “We began to see lung injuries Linked to vaping and even deaths… Health experts and advocates feared an increase in vaping ruin years of work to reduce nicotine use among youth.”
A National Survey on drug and alcohol use among adolescents also found lower use of alcohol, marijuana, and drugs such as cocaine and nonprescription amphetamines and opioids over the course of the pandemic.
Is this the start of a trend? To learn more, WFYI Digital Editor for Health and Education Lauren Bavis spoke to Benson; Rachelle Gardner, Managing Director of Hope Academy High School, a recreational high school in Indianapolis; and Sarah Platt, a peer recovery specialist and graduate of Hope Academy.
Why has substance use decreased?
Researchers and those who work with young people say it’s too early to say whether these national and statewide surveys are the start of a trend — or even if they paint the full picture of youth drug use.
“It’s important to note that the students in the survey self-reported their drug use habits,” said Benson. “And one of the leaders of the national survey asked if the students were honest about their drug use habits.”
The Gardner of Hope Academy noted that students take the survey at school and those who use drugs may not attend classes regularly.
That’s where a school like Academy of Hope can make a difference, she said. Recovery High School on Indianapolis’ south side can accommodate up to 65 students in ninth through twelfth gradesth Class. As this is a small school, the classes are smaller, which can be helpful for students who have missed classes because of their drug use and whose brain development may also have been affected by drug use.
“So a smaller setting is really more impactful to help them feel successful in the classroom,” she said. “Once they start to feel successful in the classroom, they start to feel successful in the other changes they make.”
How can adults talk to youth about substance use?
Before becoming a recovery coach, Platt attended Hope Academy for 11 yearsth and 12th Grades. Now she works one-on-one with students to guide their recovery.
“We discuss things that are going on at home, school and sobriety,” Platt said, “and we try to make plans that work with them and can make them as good as they want to be.”
Platt recalls that in high school, when she struggled with drug use, excitement about drug use quickly turned to shame. YYoung people struggling with addiction may hide their drug use.
Platt said parents, teachers and others who work with young people can have more productive conversations with teens about substance use when they consider their perspective.
“Just stepping into the conversation without judgment, with love, letting them know you’re there to help and not feeling embarrassed can really change the course of a conversation,” she said.
How does adolescent drug use intersect with mental health problems?
Gardner, who speaks regularly with parents and teachers, has become more convinced that mental health issues and substance use among young Hoosiers are actually increasing, despite national and state reports.
“I can tell you that this year we’re having more young men coming to us and telling us how anxious they are, and the use of substances to relieve that anxiety is only increasing,” Gardner said.
Gardner and Platt said adults have better coping skills for managing their emotions, which may involve using legal substances like alcohol. But without access to drugs and alcohol, young people can take seemingly extreme measures — like taking high doses of drugs like Benadryl — to cope with anxiety, depression, or other problems mental challenges.
“When it comes to dealing with emotions or feelings or fears … they want something that takes them away right away,” Gardner said.
Gardner said adults need to confront the challenges of mental health and drug use among young people at the same time. While Hope Academy staff help students live in recovery, they also take time to celebrate student sobriety milestones, as well as typical teenage milestones, like earning a driver’s license or passing a difficult class .
“They work so hard to bring about positive change and to work with their families and get their relationships back to where they were,” Platt said. “I feel like celebrating our victories brings the community together so much more.”
Listen to the full conversation on Twitter Spaces.
Contact digital editor Lauren Bavis at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @lauren_bavis.