GREENWICH — Young people in town showed high rates of depression and anxiety over the past year, according to the results of a survey that asked students about their use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and vaping as well as the state of their mental health.
The survey undertaken this year by Greenwich Together, a drug- and alcohol-prevention coalition, showed a high rate of negative feelings among seventh- to 12th-graders, evidently as a result of social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of the survey, which examines “risky behavior” and mental health of students in Greenwich, were presented this week to the public.
“In 2020-2021, for the first time we were asking about sadness, anxiety, loneliness — and I’m really glad we did,” said Mitchell Dickey, a clinical psychologist who worked on the survey. “We don’t know how much this is related to COVID or not. Other national samples are suggesting these issues are significantly higher during COVID.
“This data ought to hit you in the eyes. They are significant — and in some ways startling,” he continued.
The young people who responded that they were feeling depression or anxiety did not mean they were clinically depressed or suffering from a mental-health disorder, Dickey said, but the numbers were concerning.
“If you’ve got 40 (percent) to 70 percent of your youth saying they’re very often or frequently feeling these kinds of feelings, that’s alarming. I have not seen data this bad. My guess is, this many kids at this level, it is impacting their academic performance. This is not trifling, this is, ‘Uh-oh,’” he said.
Some 2,800 young people took part in the survey, which included students in public and private schools in the community.
Alcohol was the most commonly used illicit substance that young people reported consuming, according to the survey. About 46 percent of the 12th-graders reported consuming alcohol in the month before they took the survey, according to the data.
“Alcohol is by far the most substance reported used ‘in the last 30 days,’” said Ingrid Gillespie, director of prevention for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse organization. “There was a marked increase between grade 11 and 12 … Fake IDs and buying alcohol was fairly easy. ... Youth and parents both agree, access to alcohol tends not to be difficult and gets easier for older youth.”
Greenwich United, which works with Kids in Crisis on prevention issues, carried out a similar survey in 2018. At that time, 55 percent of 12th-graders had used alcohol within 30 days of taking the survey, compared with 46 percent this year. The number had dropped this year, possibly because of COVID-19, Gillespie said.
“Decreased use? It might be because they’re at home, they’re not hanging out, they don’t have as much access,” she said.
Dickey said there also appeared to be high levels of stress among young people in Greenwich.
“We did ask them about the sources of their stress. By far the largest source of stress, seventh- to 12-graders, was grades, getting into a good college, standardized tests and meeting parents’ expectations,” he said. “You can also say the girls did feel more social stress, and boys did feel more of the academic stress, though girls felt plenty of academic stress, as well. Stress coming from the social things, especially older girls.”
Kimberly Lisack, clinical director at Kids in Crisis, offered some advice to parents and care-givers of teens: “Have those conversations, hard conversations, and start them earlier, especially around drugs and alcohol, and social media and mental health issues as well,” she said.
Lisack said she always advises parents to make safety and well-being the highest priority around the issue of teens attending parties.
“Tell your kids they can contact you at any time, in any condition, no questions asked. It takes away that pressure of making a bad decision and doing something desperate to get home or to hide,” she said.
Lisack also advised parents to have a set of rules about communications.
“Having that clear expectation is really important,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions. … Is there a possibility that there will be drugs or alcohol at this gathering?”
Greenwich Chief of Police James Heavey said the state’s recent legalization of marijuana would be another potential challenge for families to face.
“It’s not going to be a positive thing for anyone, regardless of how much tax revenue it generates,” he said.
The chief, a father of two, said keeping young people from harm is “a team effort” by the community.
“That united front — I expected other parents to be part of the team that kept my kids safe,” Heavey said.