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Local data for community-based prevention: Vermont Youth Project's role in reducing substance use among teens

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Local data for community-based prevention: Vermont Youth Project's role in reducing substance use among teens

New data released by the Vermont Youth Project (VYP) indicates risk and protective factors for teens around “family, school, peer groups, and out-of-school time activities.” Among the findings are relatively high substance use figures among teens, as well as an indication of large amounts of unorganized free time and lack of structured activities in out-of-school time. As part of the on-going Vermont model for approaching substance use prevention among young people, the results from this survey will be used to guide action plans and establish next steps at the local level, led by community teams.

Taking a local-level approach to data collection, the Vermont Youth Project is a statewide initiative supported by Vermont Afterschool that is designed to leverage community-based efforts to address substance use prevention and youth development at a local level. There are currently six communities participating in VYP (Enosburg, Fair Haven, Richford, Richmond, Rutland, and Swanton); all have signed five-year contracts to participate in the pilot program. These six communities are in the process of building coalitions with youth development stakeholders and partners in their areas, including representatives from school systems, public health officials, family members, youth agencies, law enforcement agents, clinical providers, policymakers, and youth leaders. This model for approaching substance use prevention among young people is based on the Icelandic model and incorporates Finland’s approach, which focuses on youth voice. Vermont’s approach also employs what was already working in their state, to create their own unique “Vermont model.”

These prevention efforts were recently recognized in the Vermont governor’s call for universal access to afterschool programs. In his January 2020 State of the State address, Governor Scott (R-Vt.) specifically referenced the positive academic and social outcomes that Vermont and Iceland’s models have yielded in not only preventing substance use among young people, but also in connecting youth to valuable, enrichment opportunities and community supports.

A key component of the Vermont model is connecting communities to local-level data that demonstrates what is happening with youth in their area. The local data helps these six communities, led by coalitions of youth development stakeholders, to shape and implement their own plans for addressing the specific needs of their youth. The Vermont Youth Project adapted Planet Youth’s data tool, which was designed at the Icelandic Center for Social and Research Analysis (ICSRA) to identify the scope of substance use issues in communities across Iceland and organize a community-based, bottom-up approach to respond to those problems. Vermont has modified the Icelandic approach to work in their largely rural state that was especially hard-hit by the opioid crisis. (In 2017, Vermont had a rate of 20 deaths caused by opioid overdoses per 100,000 persons in the state, compared to the national average of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons.)

VYP’s survey looked at middle and high school youth (7th through 12th graders) during the fall of 2019 in 13 schools and asked questions related to risk and protective factors around family, school, and peer groups, as well as perceptions of substance use and participation in out-of-school time activities. They had more than an 80 percent response rate. The data demonstrates several key points:

  • High levels of substance use, low levels of perceived risk: Substance use rates are relatively high in these communities, especially cannabis use. There is a “culture of acceptance” around substance use, particularly around alcohol and cannabis use, demonstrating that youth do not see substance use as a very risky behavior.
  • Parents: Survey respondents indicated a receiving a high level of caring and warmth from their parents and indicated high levels of parental support and monitoring; however, parental collaboration/co-communication were scored relatively low.
  • Out-of-school time: Responses indicated that youth across communities have a lot of free time and lack structured activities outside of the school day. This demonstrates yet again the clear need for increased access to afterschool and summer learning programs.

Now, the Vermont Youth Project seems to  amplify efforts that are already happening in their communities and collaborate to create new opportunities to engage and support youth. As part of the pilot program, another iteration of the survey will be completed in the fall of 2020, to continue this localized data-based approach.

These six communities and Vermont Afterschool are committed to this effort because they know that afterschool is a key part of prevention. In fact, recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that young people in Vermont who participated in afterschool activities were less likely to use drugs or binge drink compared to youth who did not participate in any afterschool activities. The afterschool community stands to learn a great deal from these six communities and the Vermont call for universal afterschool.

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