Maine kids smoking, drinking less but suicidal thoughts on the rise

Kids in Maine are smoking and drinking less, but an alarming number struggle with thoughts of suicide, according to new data released today.

The state on Wednesday released the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, a study of students in grades 5-12 conducted by the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Center for Disease Control, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services division in the Department of Health and Human Services. The survey, administered anonymously to public school students, has been conducted during each odd year since 2009. More than 63,000 students participated in 2013. (Parents of students in kindergarten through third grade also were surveyed, but the results aren’t publicly available due to a low response rate.)

In a press release, the state highlighted dramatic decreases in substance abuse as the most encouraging result.

Students in all grades surveyed reported less use of alcohol, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, marijuana, illegal prescription pills, and inhalants. Most said it was difficult to get their hands on those substances and reported talking more with their parents about drugs and alcohol.

While students largely felt supported their by parents, teachers and communities, more than 14 percent of high school students said they have seriously considered attempting suicide. Almost 17 percent of seventh and eighth graders reported such thoughts.

“That fact that more than one out of every ten children in grades seven through twelve has seriously considered suicide is alarming and brings cause for concern,’’ Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in the release. “We encourage all students who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide to immediately reach out to an adult they trust who can help provide support and make connections to important resources.”

In May, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, requiring Maine public school staff to receive training on how to recognize signs that a student may be contemplating suicide.

Also in the survey, most students reported feeling safe in school, but more said they’ve been bullied on school grounds. About half of students in grades five through eight and a quarter of high schoolers were bullied at school, according to the survey.

“We’re encouraged to see that Maine’s students are making healthier choices, from saying no to drug and alcohol use to wearing their seatbelts more and increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables,” Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said in the release. “Yet we’re deeply concerned that youth with such incredible potential are feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless. We want to remind them that they are not alone and that our schools are filled with staff who care about them and are safe sources of support. It’s hard to ask for help on behalf of yourself or a friend, but it’s also incredibly brave.”

Those are the findings the state highlighted in its press release today. Some other notable results:

  • Gay and bisexual high school students reported feeling threatened more often than their straight counterparts. More than 12 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students said they were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property at least once over the last year. Among heterosexual high school students, 4.5 percent reported the same.
  • 41 percent of all high schoolers said it would be “sort of easy” or “very easy” to get their hands on a gun.
  • Middle school girls are intentionally injuring themselves. 27 percent of eighth-grade girls and almost 20 percent of seventh-grade girls reported cutting, burning or otherwise hurting themselves on purpose, without wanting to die. Far fewer middle school boys, about 8 percent, reported such behavior. Self-injury is used by some as a way to cope with emotional pain.
  • About 22 percent of fifth-graders were considered obese, more boys than girls. Roughly 57 percent of fifth-graders were at a “healthy weight” (at or above the fifth percentile but below the 85th percentile for body mass index.)

Visit www.maine.gov/suicide for information about suicide prevention. The state’s suicide prevention hotline can be reached at (888)568-1112. For information on Maine’s bullying prevention efforts, visit www.maine.gov/doe/bullying.

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Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.