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Using substances at school may be cry for help, UCLA researchers say

Date: 05/03/2014
Contact: Amy Albin
Drugs at School

Teens caught drinking or using marijuana at school should be screened for exposure to trauma, mental health problems and other serious health risks, according to a study presented May 3 at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Vancouver, Canada.

UCLA researchers found that the use of substances at school was associated with significantly increased odds of serious problems such as depression, being the victim of intimate-partner violence and attempting suicide.

"At-school substance use is not just an isolated event requiring simple disciplinary action but an important signal identifying teens in need of urgent psychosocial assessment and support," said lead author Dr. Rebecca N. Dudovitz, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA and the UCLA Children's Discovery and Innovation Institute.

Dudovitz and colleagues analyzed data from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a nationally representative survey of more than 15,000 U.S. high school students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts the survey every two years to monitor conditions and behaviors that impact adolescent health.

Researchers looked at whether at-school alcohol and marijuana use by high school students was associated with nine other serious health risks, including driving while intoxicated or riding in a car with a driver who was intoxicated; fighting; carrying a weapon at school; drinking alcohol or using drugs and engaging in sexual activity; experiencing intimate-partner violence; being forced to have intercourse; having symptoms of depression; thinking about suicide; and attempting suicide.

Results showed that 9 percent of all students reported using alcohol or marijuana at school. For both boys and girls, using alcohol or marijuana on campus was associated with dramatically higher odds of exhibiting all nine serious health risks than using substances only out-of-school.

For example, students who reported using either alcohol or marijuana on campus had a 64 percent chance of having been in a car with an intoxicated driver; a 46 percent chance of having symptoms of depression; a 25 percent chance of having experienced intimate-partner violence and; a 25 percent chance of having attempted suicide.

"These represent a considerable history of, and ongoing risk for, immediate harm that might not otherwise come to the attention of a parent or school official," Dudovitz said. "When a student is found using substances at school, we should think of it as a sign that a child needs help.

"Given the strong association of at-school substance use with some very serious and dangerous health risks, like having experienced sexual trauma and attempting suicide, we should not dismiss at-school substance use as just another school infraction. Instead, it may be a truly urgent call for caring adults to get involved and help that student access appropriate services."

Read the abstract of the study, "The Association Between At-School Substance Use and Serious Health Risks."

This study was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U48DP001934), the Short Term Training Program through the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the UCLA Children's Discovery and Innovation Institute, and the NIH/National Center for Advancing Translational Science (UL1TR000124).

Co-authors from UCLA include Kelsi McCoy and Dr. Paul J. Chung. The authors have no financial ties to disclose.

For more information on Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA and the UCLA Children's Discovery and Innovation Institute visit www.uclahealth.org/mattel.