Are fewer Bethel teens vaping? Survey shows 'State of our Students' mental health, risk behaviors

Bethel school bus file photo

Bethel school bus file photo

Cathy Zuraw / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

BETHEL — While open about issues of mental health and wellbeing, local teens may be apprehensive about disclosing — even anonymously — information about their participation in risk behaviors like vaping. 

At least that’s what the results of an April 2022 anonymous survey of Bethel eighth- through 12th-graders appears to indicate.

The survey shows close to a quarter of students have experienced depressed recently, while self-esteem among girls is particularly low. It comes at a time when more and more students are seeking counseling and other mental health support through the schools' services, according to Bethel education officials. 

But school administrators and even students questioned the accuracy of the findings on the number of students who use cannabis, vape or drink at parties. 

Of the 809 respondents, 22 percent reported drinking at parties and 8 percent reported using cannabis — reflecting 10- and 6-percent decreases, respectively, from the last time the survey was administered in 2019.

According to the district’s special education and pupil services director, Christine Sipala, the rates of students who reported using alcohol (14 percent), tobacco (2 percent) and illicit drugs (1 percent) last year were similar to those in 2019.

One aspect of the 2022 survey results that drew skepticism was a reported decrease in student vaping — from 19 percent in 2019 to 10 percent in 2022.

“I got to be honest … I don’t believe it,” one Bethel student said at the district’s State of Our Students forum — a Jan. 11 event focused on student social-emotional and mental wellness.

He said he’s certain that more than 10 percent of kids vape and believes the data is “underrepresented.” He said he's counted more than 80 invididual kids vaping in the male bathrooms in the last four months and that students perceive the survey as a "trap," even though it's anonymous. 

Sipala said she, too, heard some students didn’t answer truthfully out of fear that they might be identified through their responses and get in trouble.

Overall, Sipala said the student survey results — which revealed “lots of strengths and positives,” as well as some areas of concern — didn’t surprise her.

She said an “overwhelming” number of the 2022 respondents said they’re engaged in school activities, and a majority reported being loved and supported at home and having integrity, responsibility, honesty and care for others.

There was also an increase in the percentage of students who said they have friends who model good behavior — from 74 percent in 2019 to 82 percent in 2022 — and an increase in reported restraint — from 37 percent in 2019 to 45 percent in 2022. 

“Restraint is not something teenagers typically have,” Sipala said, describing it as one’s ability to refrain from doing something tempting but risky.

One area of concern had to do with students’ feelings about self-esteem, sense of purpose, personal power and sense of safety, which Sipala said were “really low” for female students compared to their male counterparts.

“That is something we are worried about,” she said.

Two female Bethel High School students said the lack of sense of safety isn’t exclusive to Bethel.

“Everybody in Bethel is responsible a little bit for a girl not feeling safe or a girl feeling safe,” said one student, who did not give her name at the presentation. “We all have something to do with that, and we should all be more aware of what happens to women — not only in Bethel, but in our country, and how it makes girls feel unsafe.”

While she is a proponent of self-defense classes for girls and women, the other student, who also did not give her name, said she does not believe the onus should be entirely on them.

“I’m very tired of women being blamed for not feeling safe. It’s not our fault that we’re not feeling safe in the community, and I think that goes more toward teaching people (to) respect other people and their boundaries,” she said.

The survey also found that only 16 percent of the 2022 respondents felt valued by the community and 24 percent had experienced depression within the past month. Sipala said the same percentage of students reported experiencing depression in 2019. 

There was, however, an increase in the number of students who reported attempting suicide at least once in their life — from 10 percent in 2019 to 14 percent in 2022. 

“That is trending in a way that we’re not comfortable with,” Sipala said, adding that some students believe the percentage is an underestimate.

A Bethel High School senior, who volunteers as a certified EMT in Newtown, said about a quarter of the calls he responds to are behavioral emergencies.

“What I think is more concerning in that number is (that) about three-quarters of them have been youth under 18,” he said. “It’s very concerning that we’re at these numbers, but I think it’s really important that it’s known that this is increasing and increasing rapidly.”

School services

Superintendent Christine Carver said student mental health is a top priority and “the end goal is to make sure our kids are healthy and thriving.”

Over the last several months, Sipala said the Bethel school district has seen an increase in counseling contacts — the number of times students in preschool through 12th grade meet or work with school psychologists, social workers or counselors for social-emotional reasons — compared to the same time last year.

In 2021-22, the district had over 15,000 counseling contacts in 2021-22. Since the start of this school year, there have been over 7,000.

“Last year at this time, we had done under 6,000,” Sipala said, noting that the counseling contact count represents numbers of visits — not individual students.

Enrollment in Bethel’s school-based health centers, where therapists provide mental health support to students and families, has also gone up. 

“School-based health centers have taken on more kids,” said Sipala, noting that the district — which had 91 students enrolled as of June 2022 — currently has more than 115 school-based health center enrollees.

She said the increases in school-based health center enrollment and counseling contacts show that more students and parents are coming out and expressing a need for support.

One of the female Bethel High School students at the forum said thinks there are still a lot of students in need of counseling who are hesitant to seek help.

“I know personally that kids in high school go through a lot and adults usually don’t see that," she said. "We are really good at hiding it and usually talk to other kids our age because they understand more." 

Another service provided by the district is crisis intervention, which occurs when a student indicates thoughts of harming themselves or others. 

When this happens, Sipala said, the school will intervene with something like a risk assessment.

Since the start of the current school year, there have been close to 50 crisis interventions in Bethel — around the same number reported between September and December 2021, according to Sipala, who said the district recorded a total of 105 crisis interventions last school year.

K-8 screenings

A different screening method is used to determine social-emotional wellbeing for the district's younger students. 

Kindergarten through eighth-graders are given Devereux Student Strengths Assessments at the beginning and end of each school year to screen for social and emotional competencies and provide information on their strengths and instructional needs.

The assessment looks at areas like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, goal-directed behavior, personal responsibility, decision making and optimistic thinking. 

In addition to identifying at-risk kids in need of support, Sipala said the district uses the data to look at trends across grade levels “to try to help boost skills for students.”

Over the last year, Sipala said Bethel students have shown improvement in overall social and emotional competence.

“A fairly small percent of students were ranked by their teachers as being in the at-risk range for having low levels of the social-emotional skills, and quite a sizable group were rated in either the typical or the strength range,” she said.

DESSA data from the beginning of the 2022-23 school year was even better than last year, with 8 percent of students in the “at-risk” range, 71 percent considered “typical,” and 22 percent in the “strength” category.