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Substance abuse declines, but mental health struggles are up among Tri-State students, survey finds

a young woman with her face in her hands

Survey results show students in grades 7-12 in the region dealt with mental health struggles during the pandemic while substance use declined.

The PreventionFIRST! Student Survey is administered every other year and asks questions regarding demographics, substance use, gambling, and other lifestyle habits and behaviors. Every school in the Tri-State area is invited to take the survey. More than 26,000 students responded.

What the survey shows

The average age for first-time substance use by high schoolers in the region is going down. Survey results show kids tend to take their first illicit substance when they're under 13 years old. Prescription drugs tend to be taken when kids are under the age of 12.

Courtesy of PreventionFIRST!

"Just because it's prescribed by a doctor does not mean it's safe, does not mean that you can't abuse it," PreventionFIRST! President and CEO Nicole Schiesler said during a press conference Thursday.

The average age of first use for all substances within the region is 12.9 years. Alcohol is at 12.6; tobacco at 12.7; marijuana at 13.7; and prescription drugs at 11.9.

Schiesler says the 30-day usage rate for high schoolers declined as well, but she says attention still needs to be paid to the usage rate.

Courtesy of PreventionFIRST!

"There are still students who are using," Schiesler said. "We can celebrate the fact that these percentages have gone down, but we still have young people abusing these substances on a 30-day prevalence."

Pandemic 'influences' access

Interact for Health President and CEO Kate Schroder says it's likely because of the pandemic.

"There's been a lot more reduced opportunity for social interaction with many activities being canceled and social events," Schroder said. "That can really influence access."

More than half of the respondents reported high stress levels, with roughly 1 in 10 having suicidal ideations at some point. At least 60% of students reported having difficulty pulling themselves out of a bad mood.

You can see a summary of the results below. Click here for the complete findings.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.