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I feel compelled to write in response to Brian Degen’s article, “What about our kids?” which appeared in The Valley Reporter on October 18. In his well-written and moving piece, Brian reports some disturbing statistics about the rates of depression and drug and alcohol use among Harwood students and proposes that a community/youth center on Flemer field would be a valuable resource for our teens. I agree that a community/youth center is a great idea. And, I am concerned that the Harwood statistics, presented in isolation, are potentially misleading and could work against the goal of creating a strong community to support our kids. The reality is that the numbers coming out of Harwood are on par with and in some cases better than the parallel statistics for the country as a whole. It feels critically important to me that Harwood not be demonized. And while it may well not have been Brian’s intention to blame Harwood, I am afraid that presenting the Harwood statistics without an understanding of national norms does just that. Yes, there is a problem here. But we have to know something about the larger context of the problem before we can create effective solutions. Creating fear and lowering morale about our local high school is not going to help.
Here’s what I think we all should know. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a large-scale survey in 2011 called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRSBB). In this survey, they asked 15,425 high school students across the country (including 8,654 students from Vermont) questions about a slew of behaviors and wellness measures, including the same questions Brian sites regarding rates of depression and substance abuse.
So let’s compare Harwood responses, as reported in Brian’s article, to those of students nationwide, as reported in the YRSBB. Across the country, 28.5 percent of high school students endorse feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row” compared to 23 percent of students at Harwood. (This specific description of mood is taken from the DSM-IV-TR, the manual used by medical and mental health providers to diagnose major depression; this mood descriptor is only one of a list of criteria that need to be met in order to yield a diagnosis.) Ten percent of Harwood students report making a suicide plan within the last 12 months, compared to 12.8 percent across the country; 7 percent of Harwood’s senior girls report having made a suicide attempt in the last year compared to 7.7 percent nationally.
And the statistics for student drug and alcohol use at Harwood are almost identical to national stats. At Harwood, 33 percent of seniors report drinking five or more drinks in a row in the past 30 days, as do 31.5 percent of seniors nationally. Six percent of Harwood sophomores report having used marijuana on school property in the past 30 days, as do 5.9 percent of sophomores around the country. And, finally, 28 percent of Harwood sophomores report being offered, sold, or given illegal drugs while on school property, as do 27.8 percent of sophomores across the country.
Am I saying that these numbers are not alarming because they are just the norm? No! These numbers are incredibly disturbing, and as the mother of two girls hurtling toward adolescence, I feel strongly that we need to do something to help our kids. But here’s the thing. To look at these numbers without the context of the greater world around us will only scare parents about what to expect from a Harwood experience and reduce pride amongst the students who go there. Let’s join together with Harwood teachers and administrators to acknowledge the challenges they are up against and lend our support. A strong community united behind the high school will help foster resilience in our kids at a time when depression and substance abuse are rampant around the country.
A community/youth center could certainly play a vital role. I imagine first and foremost a gathering spot. Most “peer pressure” is pro-social; in other words, most of what kids learn from their peers is good, and we could capitalize on this by giving them a safe and appealing place to gather. I imagine a place where kids can find academic support so that they can feel competent and confident as students – an important resiliency factor. I imagine a place where kids and families can go to tap into community resources such as outdoor education, community service and work opportunities, all of which promote self-esteem and healthy personal development. And I imagine a venue that could house mentoring programs to help adults get involved in new ways in the lives of the local kids. Mentorship has been shown to be one of the most powerful resiliency factors of all! I imagine a staff member who could seek grant money to allow our community to develop new and creative programs that make use of our rich and gorgeous natural environment and our incredibly talented community members. Or, better yet, imagine if a staff member worked with student volunteers on program development, so that teens could be creative thinkers and advocates for themselves, their neighbors and their peers nationwide! And I have a great first project for them to consider. Have you seen the research about how moving the high school start time to 8:30 reduces teens’ reports of depressed mood by 20 percent and improves behaviors and academic performance? Show me a teen who wouldn’t be interested in advocating for more sleep! This is just one example of how understanding the real sources of the problem can help us create effective solutions.
Clearly, I share Brian’s vision. It is hopeful to imagine the ways a youth/community center could be used to promote health and happiness for our kids. I’m on board. But if we want to lift up the kids in our community, we have to bring Harwood with us.
Lindsay Jernigan lives in Waitsfield and has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in counseling psychology. In addition to her private practice she periodically teaches courses, including Child Development, at UVM.