State survey shows Aspen students deal with substance abuse more than state and regional averages
2021 results from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed alcohol, marijuana, vape, and cigarette use are all higher in the Aspen School District compared to statewide averages—in some cases by as much as 25%.
Middle and high school students are invited to fill out the survey every two years, and 2021 results also show high amounts of mental health issues among students in Aspen.
These results were presented to the Pitkin County Board of Health on Aug. 10.
Katherine Sand is the director of Aspen Family Connections, an organization that works with the school district and connects families to resources, including substance abuse and mental health support.
“Vaping, substance use, these are not unique to us, but we do have potentially some of our own factors to consider,” Sand said.
Sand helped analyze this data and believes resort town culture is partly to blame because drinking alcohol is a big part of what tourists do in Aspen.
“You know, they come here to enjoy themselves,” Sand said. “And I think our challenge is … ‘How do we communicate that reality to children and young people?’ Right. How do we say to them, ‘This is for adults and not for you’?”
This increased exposure to substance use goes hand in hand with mental health concerns.
According to the survey, 39.3% of students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more in a row, and 18.1% had seriously considered suicide, so the consequences of underage substance use can be dire.
17.8% of Aspen students also reported that they used substances to cope with negative/difficult feelings.
Stella Iverson is a senior at Aspen High School and says most students drink.
According to the survey, about 35% of Aspen students reported binge drinking alcohol within the last 30 days, but Iverson expects that number to be a lot higher.
“I feel like a lot of people could have lied and felt like, ‘I'm not going to tell them that I do drugs,’” Iverson said.
Iverson and her friends were not surprised that their classmates were using substances at higher rates than the statewide average.
Gia Galindo Bartley is a junior at Aspen High School.
“Colorado is known for weed,” Galindo Bartley said. “I mean, I think that's a given. But I think that since we have so many of these outside influences … I guess youth here just start doing those things at a younger age. So, it seems like we're doing more.”
Aspen students often overestimate how much their friends are drinking alcohol or doing drugs, according to the survey, and that can give kids a false sense that underage drinking and smoking are normal.
Adeline Christensen, a senior at Aspen High School, moved to Aspen a few years ago from Denver. She thinks the culture of excess and competition in Aspen contributes to underage drinking and low self-esteem.
“I just think because we're surrounded by so much wealth and abundance, … there's a lot of tendency to maybe get jealous, which then translates to declining mental health.”
Christensen says living in such a wealthy community also makes it easier to access alcohol and drugs.
Survey results showed over half of students felt it was somewhat or very easy to get marijuana, and two-thirds felt the same way about getting access to alcohol.
In light of these results, Sand said schools need to help students make responsible decisions, which first requires them to respect student intelligence.
“We should dignify young people with information about the choices they're making because they're not stupid,” Sand said. “They have access to a lot of information. They also don't always have the judgment or the long-term perspective.”
The old standard for substance prevention curriculum often centered around scare tactics, but Sand wants kids to know about what these substances are doing to their still-developing brains and bodies long-term, so they can make informed decisions.
“That's the essence of prevention, I think,” Sand said. “It's information, and it's a kind of empowerment. They derive strength every time they overcome an obstacle or do something differently or think for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Sand and her colleagues are working to better address substance use and mental illness in Aspen students because the longer they can encourage students to delay experimentation with drugs and alcohol, the less likely they are to struggle with substance abuse in adulthood.
Colorado students will take the Healthy Kids survey again this year, and new results will be available as soon as next spring.
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