High school students’ current substance use — defined as use in the past 30 days — decreased during the pandemic between 2019 and 2021 for alcohol, marijuana and binge drinking, according to Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey results released Thursday by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. However, reported current prescription opioid misuse remained the same prior to and during the pandemic.
Girls were twice as likely to report current prescription opioid misuse than boys, 8% compared to 4%, and they showed higher rates of lifetime prescription opioid misuse, at 14.8% compared to 9.5%. Girls also had a higher prevalence of current and lifetime use for alcohol, marijuana and binge drinking.
Additionally, lesbian, gay or bisexual students had higher current and lifetime substance use rates compared to heterosexual students.
Overall, substance abuse prevalence among high school students was on the decline prior to the pandemic, a trend that continued between 2019 and 2021 for the majority of substances. This could be partially explained by decreased access to substances and increased parental supervision, the CDC said.
But that also means the recent decreases could reverse. "Consequently, it is possible that as social interactions resume, access to substances could increase, supervision might decrease, and adolescent substance use could revert to prepandemic levels," the survey’s authors wrote.
About one in three high school students still reported current substance misuse.
The CDC also found it “particularly concerning” that 35% of students who reported using a substance reported using two or more substances. Using alcohol with other substances increases the risk for overdose, among other concerns, the authors wrote.
The survey’s authors wrote that school connectedness was linked overall with lower lifetime prescription opioid misuse, and it could also be a protective factor against lifetime substance misuse. In the past, the CDC has called on schools to improve school climates to address concerns like high suicide rates among teenage girls.
"The majority of adolescents are registered in school; therefore, schools can have an important role in substance use prevention and treatment by providing a supportive school environment," the authors said.
That environment could include:
- Access to a counselor or a psychologist.
- School policies around tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use.
- Evidence-based substance abuse and violence prevention programs.
- Promoting coping, problem-solving skills and positive mental health.
According to the survey, 61.5% of high schoolers reported feeling connected to others at school. The lowest levels of school connectedness were among girls (57.6%), American Indian and Alaska Native (53.9%), Black (53.9%), juniors and seniors (59.8%), and students who were questioning or had other sexual identities (48.3%).
"Students who reported feeling connected to others at school had lower prevalence of all risk behaviors and experiences compared with students who reported not feeling connected to others at school," the authors said.