Youth say engagement from adults helps combat substance use

Lawrence High School sophomore Gretchen Bannwarth estimates that 70% of her peers vaped or used electronic cigarettes.

Worried about so many of her classmates and friends steering into harmful territory of a behavior that can put their health at risk, she has stepped up with other Lawrence youth to join the local chapter of Resist, a youth-led tobacco prevention initiative.

Gretchen’s perception matches the alarming data trends we have that show vaping is on the rise — 23% of youth in Kansas report they have used an e-cigarette or vape device. Nationally, statistics show a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high schoolers between 2017 and 2018.

The physical health risks of these trends are scary enough as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to investigate hundreds of cases across the country of lung disease associated with vaping. Unfortunately, we have seen in these cases the deaths of two Kansans, who were both older than 50, and the CDC as of Sept. 26 has identified 10 other people who have died across the country.

Our Douglas County Behavioral Health Leadership Coalition has another major concern pertaining to the potential mental health risks.

Responses in the 2018 Kansas Communities that Care Survey showed that students who reported vaping were twice as likely as those who used no tobacco products to contemplate suicide within the past year — 32% versus 16%.

This has grabbed our attention in Douglas County. The most recent Douglas County suicide report by health department analyst Dee Vernberg shows that last year, half of the county’s residents who were treated for suicide attempts in an emergency department were younger than 21.

The current Douglas County Community Health Plan seeks to address our age-adjusted suicide rate of 15.4 deaths per 100,000 people, which is higher than the national rate of 13.3. To bring that down, we recognize reaching more youth is a major key, and our Behavioral Health Leadership Coalition has been working with the leadership in all Douglas County school districts.

As we’ve delved into how to address substance abuse and help youth cope through their formative years, DCCCA has taken the lead on hearing from Douglas County students about what is important to them regarding prevention and the support they need.

“Douglas County youth report having engaged parents and adults in their life is important to prevent substance use and to promote positive mental health,” said Chrissy Mayer, DCCCA’s director of prevention and leadership.

To me, this a cry for help from our students who want more from us adults in Douglas County.

I see a three-pronged strategy in seeking to answer this call:

• Encourage strong relationships between parents and their children, including supporting strong communication with teens on harmful substances and behaviors, including vaping, and celebrating parents who set strong ground rules.

• Strengthen support systems that give students access to education and information about the negative effects of substance abuse, how they can get help and intervention for their own mental health and providing mentors, including coaches, teachers and other supportive adults in school and after-school settings.

• Enact local policies that have proven to be effective in curbing access to harmful substances. If we are seeking to address the emerging trend of vaping among youth, passing a Tobacco 21 law that prohibits the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21 is essential. Thankfully, the Douglas County Commission passed a Tobacco 21 ordinance in 2018, but to encompass most retailers within city limits, I would encourage all elected city officials and candidates for office in Lawrence, Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton to consider passing Tobacco 21 to give us a policy tool that can make a sweeping impacting for so many youth in our community.

We are hearing that our kids want more from us. If we truly want to achieve health for all in Douglas County, as adults we need to heed the example of some of our students like Gretchen Bannwarth who are speaking out and taking action surrounding dangerous trends that are harming the younger generation.

— Dan Partridge is the director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, which is a member of the Douglas County Behavioral Health Leadership Coalition.

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