A Vote for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Our Schools

At a time in our history when our flags seem to fly at half-mast more often than not, our kids are referring to themselves as “the mass shooting generation,” and suicide rates and drug overdoses are at an all-time high, we have an opportunity to make a difference in our kids’ lives at the polls by voting for candidates and ballot measures that make the current mental health and opioid crisis a priority.

As a Jefferson County, Colorado resident, I support ballot measures 5A and 5B which propose to improve student safety by upgrading school security and providing additional mental health services to include suicide prevention and substance abuse counseling. These measures will also provide funding to expand academic and early education programs, renovate dilapidated buildings, and offer competitive teacher salaries to attract more qualified teachers to our district.

Many of our nation’s schools are recognizing the need for better security measures and mental health and substance abuse services by putting these issues on the ballot. It’s up to us to support our schools in their effort to provide a safer environment for our children who have even begun advocating for themselves this year following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 72% of today’s youth, also referred to as Generation Z, say that the possibility of a mass shooting occurring in their school is a major source of stress. The APA states that this generation is also much more likely to report that they have fair or poor mental health compared to other generations. In addition, they are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety or depression. According to the most recent report from the Office of Suicide Prevention in Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 in my state. APA reports that nearly half of this generation also says they know someone with a drug or alcohol problem, but 35% said they would not know how to get help for a friend or family member with this issue.

It’s time to tell our kids that their cries for help have been heard and that we will invest in their well-being. Jeffco Public Schools, home to Columbine High School, has not seen a school funding measure passed since 2012. I’m voting for this year’s ballot measures, 5A and 5B, because they are about more than just reducing classroom sizes and increasing teacher salaries. While those things are important, 5A and 5B also address the mental health needs and safety of our students which can no longer be ignored. Our kids can’t afford for 5A and 5B not to pass.

The Youth Juuling Epidemic: Underlying Issues

This month, in light of increasing e-cigarette use among teenagers, my son’s weekly high school newsletter has been providing facts about the harmful effects of juuling, or vaping. As a parent of two teenagers, I have witnessed first-hand, the relationships among e-cigarettes, drug addiction, and mental health disorders. If your kids are juuling, there may be more serious underlying issues.

My kids, like most teenagers, seem to be under the impression that their parents were born full-grown adults who have never experienced peer pressure, bullying, depression, or anxiety. While these things have plagued teenagers since the beginning of time, I will admit that they do seem to be far more prevalent in my children’s generation. Kids today also seem far less able to cope with them and more likely to turn to e-cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs. I believe the added influence of technology is to blame.

While it’s hard to imagine life without technology now, I’m glad I grew up in a time without cell phones, the internet, and social media. There is a sense of self-sufficiency, confidence, and civility that comes from having to communicate with people face-to-face or having to find one’s way from point A to point B by looking at a map or asking someone for directions. Instead, our children lack communication skills, confidence in their abilities, and empathy for others. They also have great anxiety about doing anything for themselves. They hide behind superficial and often cruel text messages and social media posts. They avoid eye contact and real social interactions. They rely on the internet and GPS to do everything for them.

To cope with all of this, along with the usual pressures of school and the additional fear of school shootings, it’s no wonder teens turn to e-cigarettes for stress relief. The Juul, with its enticing flavors and resemblance to a USB drive, is particularly attractive to tech-savvy teens. It’s also more harmful than they realize. According to a Truth Initiative study, 63% of teens and young adults did not know that Juul pods always contain nicotine. In fact, the Truth Initiative states that the amount of nicotine in one Juul pod is equivalent to the amount of nicotine in a whole pack of cigarettes.

Kids who use e-cigarettes put themselves at risk for nicotine addiction as well as addiction to other drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that prolonged e-cigarette use can cause other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine to have a more pleasurable effect on a teen’s developing brain. NIDA also states that nicotine can have other negative effects on the brain such as attention and learning difficulties, as well as mood disorders and impulse control problems leading to self-harm or harm to others.

My daughter, who developed bipolar disorder as a teen, used e-cigarettes prior to using marijuana. She smoked marijuana prior to smoking and then injecting crystal meth and heroin. She would roll her eyes at me when I used the term “gateway drug” because she thought e-cigarettes and marijuana were harmless. According to a National Public Radio article, fewer teens believe marijuana is harmful to their health today than the mid-2000s. The article suggests that legalization of the drug may lead to this perception.

My state, which legalized marijuana in 2014, also fares far worse when it comes to e-cigarette use among teens. In Colorado, 26% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017 compared to 11.7% of high school students in the nation, according to Tobacco-Free Kids statistics. Colorado is also one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to the prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse, and access to care for youth, according to a 2018 report from Mental Health America which ranked Colorado almost dead last at 48th.

Because juuling can be an indicator of an underlying mental health issue like depression or anxiety and can lead to other substance abuse addictions, I’m proud of my son’s school for recognizing this growing problem and alerting parents and students to its dangers.

For more information about the harmful effects of juuling, visit the American Cancer Society.