A survey of junior high and high school students in Cortland County showed an 8% decrease in substance use between 2019 and 2020, but mental health is a concern to the surveyors.
In the fall of 2020, the survey was given to 1,871 Cortland County students by Cortland Area Communities That Care and surrounding county schools.
The questions asked seventh- to 12th grade students 149 questions about substance use — including marijuana, alcohol, nicotine and prescription drugs — depressive symptoms, accessibility to substances, the effect of COVID-19, bullying and risks at home and in school.
“Common substances are trending down in Cortland County, based on survey results,” said epidemiologist Margaret Thon with the organization. “Alcohol is the most commonly used substance and the data is showing prevention efforts are working in that area.”
The data show a slight increase of alcohol use from 2018 to 2019 and a significant decrease from 2019 to 2020.
“We saw decreases across the board in substance use, which goes against what the narrative has been when you look at the adult population,” said Director Matthew Whitman. “If you reduce youth access to substances, usage rates go down.”
Students think their peers drink more than they actually do, Whitman said.
“They think a lot of their peers are drinking, but our survey doesn’t match up,” Whitman said. “There’s a disconnect in their perceptions in drinking rates which can lead to kids drinking more if they misconceive how their friends are drinking.”
The 10th-grade saw the most significant decrease in alcohol use between 2019 and 2020, reporting a 10% reduction.
The highest rate of alcohol use was reported by the 12th grade with 32.6% saying they consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.
In each area regarding substance use, girls reported higher rates of use than boys.
Four questions surrounding students’ mental health and depressive symptoms were included in the 2020 survey for the first time since the survey’s start in 2014.
Overall, 25.3% of students said they feel like failures, 37.4% said they don’t think they’re good enough, 34.6% said they felt sad or depressed most days and 28.4% said sometimes they don’t think life is worth it.
“On the mental health side, things are concerning,” Whitman said.
“With mental health, the results are showing that we need to continue to improve on raising awareness about mental health, increase training and focus on that area,” Thon said. “One in five is reporting four out of four of those depressive symptoms.”
Still, the percentage of students experiencing suicidal ideations, depressive symptoms or attempted suicide decreased since 2018 by about 1.5% in each category, despite the increase in reported depressive symptoms.
In the most recent survey, 22.6% of students reported suicidal ideations, down from
23.9% in 2018; 18.1% reported depressive symptoms down from 19.1% in 2018; and 8% reported suicide attempts, down from 9.7% in 2018.
“The percentages we are at (with mental health) is a concern but not a clear trend,” Thon said. “This is the first year we are reporting indicators of mental health and all of the schools are concerned with the data.”
The data serves as a planning tool to measure the effects of prevention efforts, assist in tracking groups of students as they age and identify certain groups — like women and the LGBT community — experiencing health disparities due to environmental and social influences.
Read the results
View the entire survey at www.cortlandareactc.org/data-dashboards