Thursday, July 18, 2019

Does our community have a teenage substance use problem? And if it does, how big is it? And what should we do about it?

Given how important the answers to these questions are, you’d think we would have a firm grasp on the answers, a clear understanding of the scope of the issue and how best to address it. But our community’s engagement with these issues instead seems to emerge from some combination of individual experience, our intuition about what’s possible, anecdotes we’ve heard, and moral panic. (The anecdotes often contribute to the moral panic.)

But as I was taught in graduate school, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” An accumulation of personal experiences—and certainly an accumulation of alarming stories told around the Shabbat table—doesn’t give a meaningful window into the scope of a problem, let alone a clear sense of what should be done to address it.

Before we could begin to work on solving the problem, we had to know what, precisely, the problem was.

It took us a while to get to this realization. Two years ago, under the auspices of Machon Siach dedicated to the memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum (the research arm of SAR High School), we began to investigate the best interventions to address the substance use problem in our community. We precisely focused on “use,” not “abuse.” Our anecdotal sense was that the use of marijuana and alcohol was on the rise in our teen community. Students who were not—and largely would not become—abusers had nonetheless begun to socialize around these substances more than they previously had. The usual interventions that our community employed—some combination of punishment for individual students who violated school policies and educational events aimed at students and their parents—didn’t seem to be working.

Over months of research and meeting with experts we came to realize that we could not design interventions to address the problem without having a very clear idea of what the problem was. Are our kids using? How much? Where and under what circumstances? How are they getting access to those substances? Without knowing any of that—knowing in a data way, not an “I heard from a friend of a friend” way—we wouldn’t really know what the problem was. And if we didn’t know what the problem was, we couldn’t effectively work to address it.

And so Machon Siach launched an undertaking to gather comprehensive data about substance use in our Yeshiva League community. In this, we are following two generations behind the federal government, which has been gathering this data nationally for over 40 years. In an annual report called “Monitoring the Future,” the National Institute of Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health releases the results of a survey it conducts of thousands of high school (and, since the 1990s, middle school) students. The data that we have about the prevalence of the use of various substances among teenagers in the United States—drinking is down, say, or vaping is up—comes from those surveys.

In order to gather comprehensive data about our community, we reached out to principals of schools throughout the New York/New Jersey area. A number of other high schools from around the country heard about this undertaking and asked to join it as well. We did not seek to gather school-specific data, but to form a collective portrait of our community. Because we are neither statisticians nor public-opinion researchers, we retained a national survey and research firm, Bach-Harrison, to do the data gathering for us.

The survey that was ultimately administered in the 19 participating high schools was modeled on the one used by Monitoring the Future. That survey contains questions not only about substance use, but about students’ overall emotional wellbeing, their connection to family and community, and other factors correlated with substance use. We also added a number of questions that asked specifically about students’ Jewish practice and engagement, seeking to understand how students’ practice of and feelings about their Judaism might be a factor.

On Survey Day, February 27, 2019, more than 3,300 students in 19 high schools across five states sat down to fill in page after page of Scantron bubbles. The result of that survey was a data set unique in its scope and in the detailed picture it offers of the lives of our teenagers.

There is a discipline required to follow the scientific evidence where it leads, when that evidence may not accord with what we think we know about our community, or to follow the research in implementing the most effective intervention, when we are often inclined to say, “Even if it works in the rest of the country, our community is different.” The Yeshiva League Substance Use Initiative (as we have somewhat-clunkily renamed this undertaking) is now working toward next steps on a number of fronts: how to share the data broadly with the community, and how to use the data to inform research-based interventions to work to address our community’s specific needs. But for the first time, with the engagement of 19 schools, the collaboration of 19 principals, the support of thousands of parents, and the dedicated bubble-darkening of thousands of students, we have begun to get a comprehensive and rigorous understanding of just what those needs are.

By Rivka Press Schwartz


Dr. Rivka Schwartz serves as associate principal, general studies and co-coordinator of Machon Siach at SAR High School.

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