Report: Emerging risks, steady progress among county youth

The Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey is snapshot of New Mexico middle and high school students. The just-released results from 2013 show Taos County youth are generally on par with their peers around the state. While gains have been over the past decade in terms of fewer students smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol, behaviors such as texting while driving, extreme binge drinking and smoking hookah certainly complicate the picture.

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What sometimes happens when adults talk to young people about health and wellness is that the adults don’t have much clue about what young people actually do with their time.

However, it’s the work of the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (YRRS) to ensure that’s not the case.

The Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey is snapshot of New Mexico middle and high school students. It collects data on risky behaviors that compromise student health as well as “resiliency,” or protective factors in a student’s life such as parental involvement and communication.

The 2013 results, with data collected about this time last year, are the most up-to-date numbers for educators, health care professionals and students trying to educate their peers about the aggregate behaviors of young people.

The Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey is a collaboration between the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico Public Education Department and University of New Mexico Prevention Research Center. The survey, part of a national data-collection effort, has data from every other year since 2003. And unlike other states, the New Mexico survey provides data not only at the state level, but also county and school district level as well.

Behaviors among Taos County high school youth in 2013 are fairly consistent with young people from around the state and with trends over the past number of years.

Most notably, tobacco use has dropped significantly since 2003 for cigarettes, cigars and spit tobacco. In 2003, 32 percent of county high school students used tobacco; 10 years later, that number is 19 percent.

However, use of hookah, a water pipe with long tubes used for smoking tobacco, has risen since data was first collected in 2011. Last year, 21 percent of students used hookah. Many of the gains made by public health professionals in the realm of tobacco prevention are essentially wiped out by hookah because including it in overall tobacco use pushes total tobacco use to 28 percent for the entirety of New Mexico. The 2015 version of the survey will ask students about their use of e-cigarettes.

Marijuana use has remained fairly consistent over the past 10 years, between 25 and 29 percent for county high school students.

Drinking is also down in the county, dropping from almost 51 percent in 2003 down to about 29 percent in 2013. However, Taos County is distinguished from the rest of New Mexico in that more of the area’s young people have their first drink of alcohol before age 13: a staggering 30 percent. Furthermore, Taos County youth are twice as likely, at 8 percent, to have engaged in “extreme binge drinking,” or the consumption of 10 or more drinks in one sitting.

Local trends in drinking and tobacco use reflect those of the state and the county in part because of federally driven prevention and wellness agendas.

But risky behavior isn’t limited to substance use and abuse. One new question asked students if they texted while driving; about 40 percent of Taos County youth do.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey is the relationship between selected risk behaviors and resiliency factors. For example, of the students who said it was “very true” that in their home, a parent or guardian knows where they are and who they’re with, only 16 percent engaged in binge drinking. Of the students who responded that statement was “not at all true,” almost 45 percent engaged in binge drinking.

The survey data suggests that without the buffer of caring, affirming adults, students are more likely to engage in various types of risky behaviors, particularly when it comes to substance abuse. However, the survey doesn’t suggest the causes of risky behaviors.

Julie Martinez of Taos Alive Coalition said the results of the survey show a lot of progress, as well as emerging areas she and other professionals will need to contend with in the coming years.

The complete results of the survey will soon be made available at youthrisk.org.

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