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'Moral panic about vaping diverting from youth mental health' - Dr Marewa Glover

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

High school principals whipping up a panic about students vaping are distracting attention from a far greater threat to teens - high levels of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts, says behavioural scientist Dr Marewa Glover.

"The question we should be asking is how many students do the schools have on their suicide watchlists? And how many students have they lost in the last 1 to 2 years to suicide? How many students have been kicked out of school for serious misconduct involving sexual harassment, violence, drug use and dealing?" She said when interviewed on Radio Waatea (Tuesday 6 July).

The New Zealand Herald recently reported (23 June) that murder and rape threats were being sent to Albany Senior High School students via SnapChat, confirming that threat of sexual assault is one ongoing reality undermining students’ sense of safety at school.

In the 2019-2020 year, among violent assaults intended to cause injury reported to the Police, including sexual assaults, over 9300 of the victims were young people aged 10 to 19 years.

"The real crisis, school principals, media and the Government should be focused on is the high levels of psychological distress threatening rangatahi wellbeing." Dr Glover said.

One survey of high school students, the Youth19 survey, found that 23% had significant depressive symptoms, 21% had seriously thought about suicide in the previous 12 months and 6% had attempted suicide in that time.

"Instead of responding with help to the clear and loud warning signalled in the surveys and Ministry of Health data, high school principals are running around peeking under toilet doors to find students vaping. They have lost perspective. Some, but not all, young people engage in risky behaviours, but the risk of harm depends on the activity." Dr Glover said.

In a study led by Dr Glover 10 years ago, parents of pre-teens (aged 11 to 12 years) were most concerned about their children being encouraged to use methamphetamine and other illicit hard drugs. In rank order after that they were concerned about smoking cannabis, drinking alcohol, bullying and cigarette smoking.

Almost 4% of high school students in the Youth19 survey had at some time in their life tried harder drugs. More regular drug use was found for alcohol and cannabis.

Nine percent of high school students reported drinking alcohol at least weekly. Ministry of Health statistics for the 2019/2020 year, reports that among young people aged 15 to 17, 4% binge drink at least weekly. But binge drinking at least monthly is much higher. Twenty two percent of high school students in the Youth19 survey reported participating in binge drinking at least once in the previous 4 weeks.

The same survey of high school students found 4% were smoking cannabis weekly or more often. The survey said that whilst smoking cannabis had been relatively stable over time, more students now smoked cannabis than they smoked tobacco cigarettes which was down to 3% smoking at least weekly.

"The main concern expressed about young people vaping is that they might become addicted to nicotine, and that being addicted to nicotine might lead them to smoke cigarettes. But dependency on nicotine is indicated by daily use." Said Dr Glover.

"The Ministry of Health statistics show that daily smoking among 15 to 17 year olds is 3%, the same as the Youth19 figure for at least weekly smoking. Whereas, vaping at least weekly among high school students in the Youth19 survey was 8% but daily vaping, as shown in the Ministry of Health statistics was only 2%."

Parents have enough to worry about in this pandemic-changed time without alarming misinformation campaigns aimed at mobilising them to fight against vaping. The statistics show that if they do want to get up-in-arms about something, by far the greatest need is for parents to demand more focus on protecting and improving youth mental health and preventing youth suicide.

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