16 OCTOBER 2002

Results of a new high school survey with alarming levels of stress cited gives school officials insight to help change students' lives.

Survey shows high levels of teen stress

"My biggest concern was that of stress and suicide," Marlborough High School Principal Mary Carlson said of results that showed 16 percent of students have considered suicide. A whopping 70 percent say they are stressed out. "That concerns me immensely. I think stress is one of the issues that through a lot of education, we can help students redirect their stress," she said.

The survey was conducted in May and reported to the district this week.

In April the School Committee approved a request for the high school to administer the survey every two years. Under a state Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Community grant, money comes into the district in exchange for statistical data on students. A Burlington research company developed the survey, using a popular Centers for Disease Control model as an outline.

Students were asked a variety of questions that involved drug use, sexual activity, safety issues, mental health and self esteem. The "Youth Risk Behavior Survey" is voluntary and confidential. Of the more than 1,100 students in grades 9-12, 815 took part.

Health Educator Nancy Klein, who heads the high school's School Health Advisory Council, echoed Carlson's concerns about stress and suicide. I was concerned about the stress levels in particular," Klein said. "There are a lot of other risk factors that may happen due to stresses substance abuse, suicide, eating problems all those things relate to stress and stress management. It jumped out at me as a place that we need to impact ... a place where we could look and give them strategies on dealing with stress and school."

While some of the numbers raised an eyebrow or two, nothing was a complete shock, authorities said. "I wasn't surprised at all," Klein said. "My experience is that kids will share some of the risky behavior they experiment with. We don't usually see it in print."

Carlson said while the survey gives officials some inside information, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to her. "I'm not surprised by the statistics that I saw," Carlson, a former health coordinator and teacher, said. "But for me, if even one student has a problem with drugs or alcohol, then it's certainly a concern." Klein agreed.

"I think we're doing really good," she said, "but, if we have one or two kids who have a plan for suicide, we need to address that. We need to impact that."

A sampling of the results shows that

"Our role is to give them an understanding so they know the consequences for that risky behavior," Klein said. "We cannot be there to tell them no to taking that drink but we give them the opportunity to understand what could happen should they choose to drink, or smoke marijuana, drive with a drunk driver, have sex without a condom. There are things we might not be able to impact but we're giving them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions."

With results in hand, the question is not what students are doing, but what the school's going to do about their behavior. One way Carlson approaches the issue is to look at the other side of the statistics.

"It's important to remember that if 24 percent of our students are involved in some activity, it's just as important for me to flip that statistic to the other side and say, 'That means 76 percent of the kids are not.' Let's look at the positive side," she said.

Pros and cons, positives and negatives aside, Carlson said she thinks the survey reinforces what's already taught at the school and forces school officials to take a second look at areas that might not always get the attention they need.

"I would be silly to not take a hard look at the data," and ask ourselves if more can be done, she said. Programs like the Student Leadership Council, the current health curriculum which is mandatory in grades 8 and 10, and drug and alcohol prevention classes help to keep kids on track, Carlson said. "At the high school, it's vitally important that we get student input," she said. "I think (the survey) in many instances supports what we're doing already."

Klein said health educators will be busy during Tuesday's districtwide professional development day, digging into survey results, looking for trends and fresh teaching ideas.

"I think the survey is the first step," she said, adding that she hopes funding remains in place so that the questionnaire can be given every two years as designed. "We'll be looking at the curriculum and coming up with some strategies on things we can improve on and things we might not need to focus so much on."

By Kristen Bradley


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