Clark County teens who have suffered traumatic experiences and dysfunctional home lives are significantly more likely to use marijuana and cigarettes than their peers, according to Clark County Public Health.
At a Board of Health meeting Wednesday, Clark County councilors received an expanded presentation on the results of the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, a statewide, confidential survey that polls sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade students on their substance use, mental health and personal safety.
Epidemiologist Kathleen Lovgren pointed to a positive downward trend. Fewer 10th graders had used alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes in the month before the survey was issued than in previous years. Marijuana use, for example, dropped from 19 percent among Clark County’s teens in 2014 to 16 percent in 2016.
But further drilling into that data – which shows overall that 27.5 percent of all Clark County 10th graders had used these substances – found that those who had been abused, struggled with mental health challenges or had problems at home were far more likely to use them than their peers.
The data taps into a growing body of research around adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. A joint study between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1990s found people who had traumatic experiences as children — such as experiencing physical abuse or neglect, having an incarcerated relative, seeing their mother treated violently, or having a relative who uses drugs — are more likely to use drugs themselves. That in turn can lead to chronic health conditions like cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease and diabetes.
“The higher rates of substance use in teenagers who have experienced or are experiencing ACEs suggests that many teens who are starting down this path of (alcohol, tobacco or other drug) use are using as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma or mental illness,” Lovgren said after the meeting.
For example, of the 16 percent of Clark County 10th graders who report having been sexually abused, 46 percent had used drugs or alcohol. Of the 35 percent of Clark County 10th graders who said they are depressed, 43 percent had used drugs or alcohol. Of the 12 percent of Clark County 10th graders who experienced food insecurity — meaning they may not know where their next meal will come from or whether their family can afford to buy food — 41 percent used drugs or alcohol.
“We definitely don’t want our kids to go down this dismal path toward early death,” Lovgren said.
Recovering from ACES is a daily reality for the children undergoing inpatient therapy at Daybreak Youth Services in Brush Prairie. Daybreak CEO Annette Klinefelter said about 80 percent of Daybreak clients have experienced four or more ACEs – which research suggests makes them twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholics.
Those experiences can change the chemistry of the teenage brain, making them more likely to turn to self-medication.
“Kids with high ACEs scores have high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in their brains which means the natural brain structure and stress coping mechanisms are damaged,” Klinefelter said. “That increased cortisol causes a higher propensity to substance use and addiction.”
Wednesday’s presentation, however, could provide important context for social service providers and policy makers, according to Delena Meyer, chair of the Connect Evergreen Coalition, a community group working to prevent youth substance use. Correlating drug use to traumatic experiences as opposed to demographic data is a more useful measure of what types of issues are affecting Clark County’s young people.
“What we see is that young people go through suffering that is so intense, it is beyond their brain’s ability to cope and they seek self-medication,” Meyer said.
The best defense against drug addiction in the community is creating “resilience and connections,” Meyer said. Cities that support safe schools, community connections and organizations that support children are better equipped to respond to families’ needs.
“We can begin making strategic decisions and funding decisions that create resilience,” Meyer said.