NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – It’s too early to tell if Connecticut’s trend of decreased drug and alcohol use among teens persisted through the pandemic.
The rate of Connecticut students who drink alcohol, use cocaine or heroin, or started drinking before the age of 13 saw drastic decreases between 2009 and 2019, according to the most recent results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
While 2021’s numbers have yet to be released, advocates are hopeful, especially when it comes to how many high school students drink and then get behind a wheel
“Really, that was a number that was steady on the decline for years,” said Nicole Wichowski, the program manager for the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In 2009, 9.4% of Connecticut high school students had driven a vehicle after drinking alcohol in the month prior to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey being conducted. In 2019, that dropped to 5.6%.
In that same timeframe, the amount of students who had been in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver within the month before the survey dropped from 24.9% to 14.1%.
But despite that progress, Wichowski said Connecticut still lags behind the nation when it comes to how many students drink and drive.
There were 94 alcohol-impaired driving deaths in Connecticut in 2019, according to responsibility.org, killing 15 people under the age of 21. Overall, 37.8% of all driving deaths that year involved a driver who was impaired by alcohol.
When it came to youth, 55.6% of the crashes that killed a person under the age of 21 involved alcohol.
Among adults, the trends over the last two years haven’t been promising.
The pandemic led to an overall increase in impaired driving, along with drug and alcohol use. Officials hope that teens haven’t mirrored those increases.
Wichowski said that teens and parents have different perceptions on how many youth drink alcohol.
“With teens, they tend to overestimate how many kids are drinking,” Wichowski said, also noting that for parents, they underestimate because of “the idea that it’s not their kids.”
Media, she said, can also make it seem like more students drink they they actually do.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving utilizes programs like Power of Youth and Power of Parents to get the message across. For parents, it’s about explaining why they should talk to their students about alcohol, and teaching how to start having those conversations.
For teens, Wichowski said it’s important to stress both the immediate consequences, along with long-term impacts on brain development and the increased chance of having an alcohol use disorder as an adult.
Preventative efforts are amping up again, with state DARE officers are reentering classrooms after two years of being away.
“It was very difficult over the last few years to get officers into schools, because a lot of schools weren’t meeting,” said James White, the state’s DARE coordinator.
The program is presented by police officers over a period of 10 weeks in elementary and middle schools. It teaches students concepts about risks and consequences, how to dial 911 and what to do if there is a fire.
It also hopes to establish bridges between students and police.
“We want to foster a positive relationship with these students so they are confident in approaching a police officer when there is a very serious issue,” White said.
DARE teaches parents why creating a relationship with their children is key to raising awareness and starting conversations about illegal drug use.
He attributes the drop in drug and alcohol use to education.
“I think schools in Connecticut are phenomenal,” White said. “I am thrilled with the schools in Connecticut talking about the problem.”