The latest EKASS survey confirms a steady decline in substance use among EK youth over the years. (image compilation via Pixabay)

The latest EKASS survey confirms a steady decline in substance use among EK youth over the years. (image compilation via Pixabay)

Latest survey shows steady decline in adolescent substance use over the years

Starting in 2002, the survey has been conducted every two years to monitor changes in substance use patterns, attitudes and behaviors amongst East Kootenay youth.

Teenagers in the East Kootenay are less and less using substances like alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

The latest survey conducted by the East Kootenay Addictions Services Society (EKASS) shows that over the past 20 years, substance use has been on a steady decline amongst youth in the region.

In April, 2021, the East Kootenay Addictions Services Society (EKASS) conducted the 10th Adolescent Substance Use Survey, a regional survey of all the Grade 7 to Grade 12 students.

Starting in 2002, the survey has been conducted every two years to monitor changes in substance use patterns, attitudes and behaviors amongst East Kootenay youth.

“It’s a population-based survey, of all the Grade 7 to Grade 12 students in the East Kootenay catchment area,” said Dean Nicholson, Executive Director of EKASS. “That includes Creston, and School Districts 5 and 6 all the way up to Golden, and the Elk Valley.”

“As far as I know, it’s the only survey like it, certainly in Canada, that captures a whole area like this so consistently — a population survey over such a large area, and doing it consistently to have 20 years of data.”

The amount of data compiled by the survey over that length of time shows a pretty fair picture of reality, Nicholson says. And the data can be used in specific, tangible ways to educate youth, to see what’s going on in their lives, and to get help to someone who needs it.

“It’s been a wonderful thing. When we first did [the survey] in 2002-2003, it immediately gave us real data that we didn’t have before. From an agency perspective, we used it to totally change how we did our youth education, prevention, a lot of our youth programming.

“It allows us to go out to do all sorts of public presentations to schools, school boards, parent advisory councils, students … and rather than talking hypothetically, we can say ‘here’s what happened last year in this school, here’s the kind of data that we have, and this is how it compares to our region, and how it compares to, say, the McCreary [the B.C. wide report on the same topic]’. And people have found it so helpful.”

What the survey has done is busted the conventional myths that are out there around adolescent substance use.

“In my experience, there are two basic stances people can take. Either they can’t believe kids are doing anything, or they believe kids are doing everything.”

In the former case, the survey shows that a little use is not unusual, and nothing for adults to necessarily panic over. In the latter case, the data shows that the amount of adolescent substance use is not as bad as may be believed.

“It allays fears on both sides.” Nicholson said. “It provides more more accurate information for people who would not normally have access to that information in the world they’re working in.”

There was some debate about actually going ahead with the survey during a Covid year. But the school boards had no hesitation, and were on board with the survey going ahead. The survey usually brings in a 72 per cent return on the 4,500 surveys sent out, and EKASS was expecting a 50 per cent rate of return this year because of the pandemic. “We got 75 per cent this year — a phenomenal return rate,” Nicholson said.

“It speaks to how well the schools are doing, being able to have kids in the schools, and the support we get from the schools and the school administrators.”

With that rate of return, Nicholson said, the data is going to be pretty reliable, especially given the consistency of the returns over the years. And over the years, interesting patterns and trends have emerged

The students are given a list of all the substances that are potentially out there, asking if they have ever tried them, and how often and how frequently.

“Since we started in 2003, we’ve seen a steady decline in the number of kids who report ever having used alcohol,” Nicholson said. “This year we found that of all the Grade 7 to 12 students, about 56 per cent said they’ve used alcohol at least once. That’s down a little bit from two years ago, when it was 57 per cent, and the time before — 58 per cent. But it was 77 per cent 18 years ago.”

This shift is happening right across the country, Nicholson said. National surveys, and the McCreary survey of BC youth, all indicate the same trend. Which further confirms that the EKASS survey is reliable.

In similar trends, the data also shows that cannabis rates are declining, and tobacco rates are declining.

Nicholson said that 20 years ago, the East Kootenay region had a pretty high level of adolescent. substance use compared to the rest of the province. But over the years those numbers have steadily declined — more quickly than other parts of the province, in fact, so that the East Kootenay is more in line with provincial levels.

“There is a demographic social shift happening,” Nicholson said. “Partly, the approach to education has shifted away from the fear-based approach — ‘scare them straight,’ and ‘just say no’ — that didn’t always give accurate information. And kids saw through that.

“Now, with access to the internet, kids can get all sorts of information they couldn’t get 30 years ago.

“We try to provide accurate, reliable information. If we’re asked about substance abuse and the risks, we talk about pros and cons.

“So what you’re getting is, hopefully, a more educated population that’s making more informed choices.”

In 2007, the first year the survey asked about tobacco use, 40 per cent of responders said they had used tobacco. This year, that number is down to just under 20 per cent.

In 2015, the survey started asking about e-cigarettes and vaping.

“The first time we asked, it was almost neck and neck — tobacco and e-cigarettes were roughly the same, with 30 per cent of kids saying they’d tried it. Then e-cigarettes took right off. Two years ago it was twice as many kids had tried e-cigarettes as had tried tobacco — 44 per cent. But this year, it dropped off to 38 per cent. It looks like that has peaked, the novelty is wearing off now.”

As for cannabis, in spite of legalization, the numbers are trending downward. Nicholson said in 2005, 38 per cent kids said they’d tried cannabis. In 2019, a few months after legalization, the number was 31 per cent.

Nicholson said this year’s survey showed there had been a bit of a rise in numbers of youth who’d used cannabis last year. But last year was a pandemic year, and cannabis use was up across all age groups in Canada.

As far as other drugs go — hallucinogens, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, etc — all are at lower levels, under four per cent.

The survey asked adolescents if they’d used opioids for other than medical reasons — to get high, in other words. The response came back at six per cent, but Nicholson thinks that number might be one to two per cent lower, as it’s likely some younger students misunderstood the question, answering yes for having taken opioids like a tylenol for a medical reason — for pain because of an injury, for example.

Nicholson, who looks at every single survey, can see such patterns in the responses, and judge their statistical significance. There is a very small number of kids — about two per cent — who will provide bogus answers to the survey, as a joke or whatever. But the patterns of these responses are also consistent. Nicholson can recognize these responses for what they are, and the results are not entered into the data.

Nicholson said that this year, those type of responses were less than one per cent of the total.

Most substance use among youth is infrequent. But when it becomes regular usage among a specific group or individual, that’s when it becomes a worry, Nicholson said.

“There are some kids who are struggling. And we want to give them our support. If we see kids whose behaviour is not typical for their age-group or peer group, that indicates a larger problem. We see the substance use as a symptom of other issues. We know there’s a whole lot go other things going on in their lives, and we can get them support in those other ways.

Ultimately, the data generated by the EKASS survey is to the benefit of those people who respond to it.

“These young people have the right to good information and to make informed decisions about their own health,”Nicholson said.