Group aims to use survey data to help Summit County students navigate the challenges of adolescence

Park City High School.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record |

When Summit County teens drink, it’s increasingly at someone else’s home with the permission of parents.

Very few teens smoke cigarettes, but vaping use is skyrocketing — fivefold among eighth-graders.

The places that students feel the least safe at school are the bathrooms and parking lots.

More than a third of students in grades six through 12 are somewhat or very worried about the possibility of gun violence or an active shooter.

These are some of the facts contained in the most recent version of a state survey designed to reveal the reality students face and to help school and community leaders determine where to focus prevention efforts.

The Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) statewide survey was administered to Utah students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 in 39 school districts, 17 charter schools and one private school, according to the report. Students in all three Summit County school districts took the survey, with a roughly 30% participation rate, said Carolyn Rose, the county’s nursing director and the person tasked with digging into the data contained in the report.

The survey asks students questions like how many times they’ve drank alcohol in the last month, whether they would be perceived as “cool” if they worked hard in school, if they would miss their neighborhood if they had to move and how important it is to be truthful to their parents.

Illustration by Ben Olson/Park Record

Other than vaping — five times as many eighth-graders had vaped in the preceding 30 days in 2019 as did in 2017 — the most concerning trends that Summit County’s Communities that Care coordinator Mary Christa Smith noted are a jump in substance use and depressive symptom rates and an increasingly lenient parental attitudes toward certain “antisocial behaviors” like picking a fight or drawing graffiti.

The response rate wasn’t what officials wanted it to be; the report notes a 60% participation rate as a good indicator of accurate responses. Summit County’s rate was half of that, and that is something Rose said organizers are trying to improve. Parents have to opt their students into the survey, and many do not.

Still, Smith says it’s the best tool they have in determining how to address substance abuse and behavioral health challenges affecting Summit County students.

“This is our primary data tool that we use for all of our prevention work,” she said.

It’s foundational for determining the programs that will be used to try to tackle some of the problems identified in the report, she added.

Summit County and its school districts have made a concerted push to increase access to mental health care in the years since the overdose deaths of two young students put the issue front and center in 2016.

The SHARP survey contains some positive information on that front, but also the stark reality that 51.6% of respondents are somewhat or very worried about the possibility of a fellow student committing suicide.

In the previous year, 4.8% of Summit County students had attempted suicide, while 12.2% had seriously considered doing so, according to the report. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of Summit County students reported high or moderate depressive symptoms.

“We have seen a rise in depressive symptoms for all grades between 2017 and 2019,” Smith said. “There are positive, hopeful signs in there as well: 87% of students felt it was OK to seek help or talk to a professional if they feel sad or hopeless. … The good news (is) — kids are seeking treatment, stigma is declining. (It’s) OK and acceptable to reach out and ask for help.”

She added that students now are more likely to report concerns about a fellow student to a school staff member, which was rare in the past.

Sixth-graders are more likely to tell an adult if they’re feeling sad while older students tend to confide in their peers.

The school districts have begun teaching students how to help when a friend is struggling and have adopted various programs aimed at helping students through mental health challenges.

“Students train students and talk to each other and support each other,” Rose said. “It’s the best support there could be.”

As for substance use, sometimes the issue can be handled if parents talk to their children about their family’s rules, Rose said.

“An example of that is … the parent does these types of behaviors but don’t have the conversation with the child that says this is wrong or the parents don’t have the conversation with the child that they have expectations of no drinking until you’re 21,” Rose said. “Parents need to have conversations with kids about the parents’ expectations. It’s talked about more in schools, (but) kids don’t always know what their parents expect.”

A key initiative that arose out of the effort surrounding the 2017 SHARP report called Guiding Good Choices attempts to help parents initiate those difficult conversations with their children and to know what to say. It’s a five-week course involving about two hours per week and offers sessions in both English and Spanish.

The 2017 SHARP survey prompted stakeholders from the North Summit, South Summit and Park City school districts, as well as county and nonprofit officials, to gather under the guidance of the Communities that Care program to work together to find solutions.

The committee selected three risk prevention priorities: a lack of perceived risk of substance use among students; an increase in depressive symptoms, including self-harm and suicidal ideation; and permissive parental attitudes, like allowing drinking at home.

The stakeholders then determined how best to target prevention work like new programs to those specific goals.

In mid-January, a similar set of representatives will once again convene to review the survey data and reexamine the priorities that were set in 2017.

Smith and Rose will present their take on the data and listen to reports from the various school districts about what they’re seeing. Rose said the effort is ongoing and that the group has already met multiple times.

She added that the group looks at the work being done by the school districts to make sure it’s evidence-based and to take what’s working and bring it to the other districts.

Before the overarching organizing group began in 2017, school districts were left to interpret the data largely on their own and attempt to implement prevention strategies.

That led to potentially redundant and inefficient efforts, Smith said.

“We’re also able to share resources across the county,” she said. “There are, for example, experts at the Health Department focused on prevention. Instead of any different entity creating its own resources, (they’re able to) draw on (the county’s) resources.”

Smith said one potential success in the areas of focus was the 16-point drop in the number of students who reported drinking at home with their parents’ permission. That’s exactly the sort of issue targeted by the Guiding Good Choices program.

For the first time this year, the survey asked how much out-of-school time students spend looking at screens, like social media or YouTube. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents said they spend more than two hours each day, with that number climbing to 75% for high school seniors.

Smith said state officials are working on a tool to try to examine the link between increases in screen time and depressive symptoms and that it should be ready soon.

Rose remarked that adolescence is a hard time, especially today, and the stakeholders are using the data in the SHARP survey to find solutions.

“Kids across the board are having — they’re really stressed. We’re seeing depression and just trouble communicating.” Rose said. “Adolescence in general and trying to navigate and find themselves and being in a state of confusion or stress — schools are trying to help address that.”

Vaping is on the rise

Nearly one out of every four Summit County high school seniors report having vaped within the last 30 days, according to a recent survey; for sophomores, it’s nearly one in every five.

The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 54 confirmed deaths across the country associated with vaping-related lung illness.

The rash of illnesses hit the South Summit School District earlier this year when students were hospitalized for vaping-related lung ailments, according to South Summit High School principal Wade Woolstenhulme.

“Bottom line is — vaping is killing people,” Woolstenhulme said in October, the week after Utah saw its first vaping-related death. “We had kids from our school that have been hospitalized this year because of vaping. We don’t want any more. We don’t want any kids to get sick, to get long-term illnesses.”

Though Woolstenhulme said those students have since recovered, the problem remains a vital one for all three of Summit County’s school districts.

The results from the 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) statewide survey bear this out, showing that the number of students who reported having vaped in the preceding 30 days has increased by about 9 percentage points since 2017. For high school seniors, it jumped from 9.8% in 2017 to 23.4% this year.

As Summit County’s Communities that Care coordinator, Mary Christa Smith is leading the effort to use the data in the survey to come up with programming solutions. A committee of representatives from the North Summit, South Summit and Park City school districts as well as other Summit County and nonprofit leaders will assemble in mid-January to discuss how to move forward with the survey results.

“Vaping across the board — it’s just tremendous exponential growth,” she said.

She said the numbers show the rate of use over the last 30 days tripled between eighth and 10th grades.

The committee’s work hopefully “helps teachers, counselors, coaches (and) parents have an understanding (of the issue), and hopefully we’re providing them skills and resources to address that particular age group,” she added.

Doctors still don’t know what’s causing the illnesses and deaths, though they have indicated a strong correlation exists with vaping THC products, the active ingredient in marijuana. There also appears to be a relationship between cases and vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used to bond to the THC to make it inhalable, according to the CDC.

It’s difficult to catch students in the act of vaping, even during class, school officials have said, as the devices are small and the vapor disappears rapidly.

In addition to education campaigns, school districts have discussed installing “vaping detectors” to help address the problem.

The survey data shows that, unlike the case with vaping, cigarette use has remained relatively steady, although slightly above state rates.

Less than 2% of students reported having smoked a cigarette in the last 30 days, compared to 12.5% percent who said they had vaped. The overall numbers are lower than the rates for older students, as they include the near-zero rate of sixth-graders.

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