Adolescence is a time for experimentation, and for many teens that experimentation includes using different types of drugs. They try — and may continue to use — substances like alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, solvents and prescription drugs without a prescription.
The results of two student drug use surveys, released last week by the minister of health and community services to kick off Addictions Awareness Week in the province, put some numbers on substance use among adolescents and offered insight into causes and cures.
The 1998 Newfoundland and Labrador Student Drug Use Survey shows that the percentage of students who don't use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is about 35 percent, relatively the same since 1996. However, there is an increase in the proportion of students who are combining drugs like alcohol, tobacco and cannabis.
The second study uses an innovative approach that reveals some of the reasons students use alcohol and other drugs, and offers some direction for intervention. The Student Path Analytic Survey was done by Memorial's Psychology Department, in collaboration with Health and Community Services regional and integrated boards and the Department of Health and Community Service.
The study's analysis so far suggests that the most important predictors of alcohol use are the extent that alcohol is used by peers and the student's own preference and norms. Other important factors are the amount of leisure time available, which seems to predict more alcohol consumption, while greater church-related activities appear to be a possible inhibitor of alcohol consumption.
The idea for the collaborative study started with Dr. Minnie Wasmeier, director of Health and Community Services Western, and Dr. Robert Adamec of MUN's Psychology Department. Dr. Wasmeier was worried about the growth of substance abuse among young people; Dr. Adamec thought he knew how to get at some answers.
The key was using a complex statistical tool known as path analysis or structural equation modelling. The researchers, who include psychology professors Al Kozma and Bill McKim as well as Dr. Adamec, started with an Australian model and modified it to fit Newfoundland data. In addition to evaluating major predictors such as the adolescent's own norms and preference and peer consumption, the Newfoundland model evaluates the contribution of two other variables — the ease of access to substances such as alcohol and the amount and types of activity which engage the adolescents' leisure and non-leisure time.
The study is far from being just an academic exercise.
"By using this statistical analysis we can go on to develop effective interventions," said Dr. Adamec, noting that this is the type of expertise the university can supply to help solve provincial problems.
Results from phase one of the study, which looked at alcohol consumption among adolescents, already point to several potential intervention strategies.
"The easiest of these may be to reduce alcohol availability and increase recreational activity," said Dr. Adamec. "Since the best and most direct predictors of alcohol use appear to be peer use, own preference and own norms, anti-abuse campaigns and group information sessions might improve the effectiveness of activity-oriented interventions."
The path analysis model has been tested so far on 3,300 students in Grade 8 and Grade 11, randomly selected throughout the province. Future analysis will apply path modelling to the use of solvents, coffee and cola, tobacco, prescription drugs without a prescription, and hashish and marijuana.
Results from the first phase of the study show some regional differences in alcohol consumption among adolescents. There are also differences in alcohol consumption between younger and older adolescents, and between older males and females. Dr. Adamec said that if a single model does not fit the entire population, path analysis allows models to be developed for adolescents of different ages, sex and in different regions in Newfoundland.
"This will make tailoring of interventions more specific, if the analysis warrants."
The Student Path Analytic Survey is Phase 1 of a two-part report, and research is ongoing.