Utah schoolchildren aren't as drug prone as their classmates elsewhere, but they aren't as sober as their parents might like to think.
About 25 percent of high school students use alcohol, and by the time they're seniors, half have tried it, according to a recent survey — the first of its kind — of 14,368 students, grades 6 through 12, in 38 of Utah's 40 school districts. Religion and strong family attachments seem to work better here as "antidrugs," keeping experimentation and use down compared to other states, the survey shows.
But for some reason, Utah junior high and high school students are inhaling, or "huffing," chemicals such as glue, gasoline and aerosols to get high more than students in other states, the only type of drug use that is higher compared to students nationally, with use peaking in the seventh grade, according to the survey.
Ironically, junior highers' use of alcohol, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, marijuana and heroin is more than two times lower than students nationally. The inhalant use is a surprising and troubling finding to coordinators of the survey, which will be mailed to the participating school districts at the end of the month.
The use of inhalants, which can pose the most immediate and dangerous health risk, seems to have dropped off elsewhere and it declines with age in Utah, said Steven Harrison, a clinical psychologist whose company, Bach Harrison, conducted the survey.
"The students seem to be getting the message about the harmful effects of tobacco," Harrison said. "We hardly find any kids smoking a pack a day. But the younger kids don't seem to have adopted the same attitude about inhalants."
For alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, Utah students use two to three times less than students nationally, according to the survey, which was sponsored by the Utah Office of Education, the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
The survey is actually a prevention needs assessment that will provide state agencies and schools possible targets for drug-use prevention campaigns.
Top of the possible influence on kids is the attitude of the parents, the survey found. Children whose parents have told them that drug use is "very wrong" and absolutely not permitted by anyone in the household have only a fraction of the experimentation and use as more lenient parents.
"That might be the biggest surprise of the survey," Harrison said. "We've known parents are important, but if parents open the door just a bit or don't appear absolutely clear about what is permitted, use increases by sixfold."
The same goes for a student's peers, according to the survey. If students think the buddies will regard use as cool, they are several times much more likely to use, Harrison said.
Other findings include:
Students begin using cigarettes before using any other substance, with first use at 12 years old.
The first sip of alcohol occurs at 12.8 years of age, and regular use at 14.3.
Those who use marijuana started when they were about 13.
Although in years past, being female was believed to reduce the risk of drug use, males and females are almost identical in their drug use nowadays.
Depression remains a strong indicator of use, with rates among students who reported depression symptoms about three times higher for marijuana and four times higher for alcohol than those who said they weren't depressed.
About 13 percent of sixth-graders say they have tried alcohol, and about 2 percent said they had used in the previous 30 days.
Slightly less than 13 percent of high school students said they had gone to school drunk within the past year.