Why We Need to Talk About Substance Use and Our Jewish Youth
Recently, the results from a two year-study of yeshiva high school students were released. The data, gathered from 2019 to 2020, demonstrated that our high school students have a particular issue with alcohol and binge-drinking,* indicating usage that is higher than national averages, as well as with gambling on sports (for males). According to the yeshiva survey, out of 3,500 students in 2019, 17 percent reported binge drinking. In 2020, that number went up to 19 percent out of 2,800 students.
We know that alcohol is a common substance that we use in our rituals and religious observances. Therefore, in the most recent newsletter from Communities Confronting Substance Abuse, the group my husband and I founded, we wrote about alcoholism in the Jewish community, highlighting the necessity of recognizing the prevalence of alcohol use disorders and the need to increase our awareness and sensitivity.
We certainly should consider how we model drinking to our children, but we should also be aware that there are adults struggling too, making it inappropriate to “push” alcohol on anyone. We never know who might be suffering from alcohol misuse and other mental illnesses. The logical extension of these thoughts is to consider the appropriate prominence, type, and volume of alcohol served at our Shabbas tables and smachot. This is a very real issue in our community, and it is downright terrifying to see the widespread use of alcohol amongst our youth.
Moving beyond the data on alcohol…
It is critical to have points of information and to ground our reactions in newfound data, but we should not lose sight of the other areas of substance use and misuse, which are also serious problems amongst our Jewish youth. We may fall slightly below national averages in terms of using marijuana, nicotine, and other substances, but given how high those averages are, and the fact that younger substance users are more at risk of developing a diagnosable addiction (i.e. the increased risk of using before the brain fully develops at the age of 25), we need to look at the entire picture and understand the overall threat we are facing.
Put differently, while the headline of this new data is extremely concerning, the subtext is equally dangerous to our children and cannot be ignored.
To understand the bigger picture, let’s look at an annual drug survey of eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students conducted by the researchers at the University of Michigan. In the 2020 survey, more than 11,800 students from 112 public and private schools across the United States participated. Here are some of the statistics that were measured in the 2020 study: (see table)
These numbers are concerning enough, but we also must consider the impact of the pandemic and the likelihood that percentages will increase in 2021. This last year has introduced a level of uncertainty and anxiety, combined with the lack of normal socializing and upheaval, that is unprecedented in our children’s lives.
Many experts believe the pandemic could lead to a nationwide increase in substance use disorders, the crisis being labeled an “epidemic hidden in a pandemic.” Our teens are the most vulnerable during their development as they struggle with their identity, relationships, and transitions into adulthood. During covid-19, their social lives have been unusually disrupted, extracurricular activities canceled, academics moved to remote or hybrid learning, and other stressful situations have affected them as well. This all puts our youth at extra risk for experimenting with substances, which we know they are now doing at earlier and earlier ages.
The importance of educating our youth
Addiction doesn’t happen overnight. Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I think I want to be an addict today!” It is a process whereby the introduction of a substance (alcohol or any other drug) impacts the brain, and over time hijacks it. It is a brain disorder that does not pick and choose based on race, religion, socioeconomic status, or demographics, and we have no idea who is biochemically wired to be impacted by it and who is not.
What science does tell us is that the earlier children first use substances, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder.
The main reason CCSA created evidence-based prevention programming for middle and high school yeshivot is that education around substances and addiction is a proven protective factor in reducing the likelihood of substance use problems. In addition to discussing the impact of substances on the brain and body, we explore healthy coping mechanisms and refusal skills; most importantly, we teach the students that delaying onset of first use is the best way to avoid developing a disorder.
Removing misassumptions and opening up conversations
To some extent, our community has remained blissfully unaware of the growing substance use epidemic we face. The mere fact that we felt the need to gather data from our own community demonstrates that we were hopeful that we might find results materially different from national averages. That we now know that substance use impacts us similarly to the broader population is an important revelation.
Make no mistake, gathering this data served a critical purpose – it is the first of its kind that we are aware of and has removed our mistaken assumption that we could not possibly be the same as everyone else. It also eliminates any excuses we may make for failing to act aggressively to address this issue. The data also gives us invaluable insights into many other issues and perceptions that were measured in that survey.
It is all too tempting to focus on one or two highlights and push the other pieces of data aside, so as not to feel overwhelmed or defeated. It would be wonderful if we, as a community, focused on the problem with alcohol that clearly exists amongst our children, but we cannot lose sight of the other issues we also face. Left under-addressed or unchecked, those numbers could easily rise and outcomes will be worse. Let’s work together as a community to address the devil hidden in these details.
*Binge-drinking is defined as the intake of high quantities of alcohol on one occasion. It involves alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08 g/dL, which is commonly associated with acute impairment in motor coordination and cognitive functioning. This typically occurs in men after consuming five or more drinks in about 2 hours, and in women after consuming four or more drinks in 2 hours. For teenagers, that threshold is even lower because children and adolescents are likely to reach BACs of more than .08 g/dL at lower levels of consumption.