Survey finds Darien teens are feeling sad, anxious; experts say don’t underestimate COVID’s impact

DARIEN — Nearly half of Darien’s youth report experiencing high levels of sadness, anxiety and loneliness — and they may be using more substances as a result, according to a new survey examining mental health and substance use of the town’s teenagers.

The results, which experts warned should concern parents and community leaders, came from a survey administered in February by the Thriving Youth Task Force, a coalition of youth leaders that aims to reduce substance use by teenagers. The task force, which was formed in 2008, collects and presents results from the survey every three years.

About 2,070 students in grades 7 to 12 participated in the survey. As expected, experts said, this year’s results were heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of children surveyed reported feeling more anxiety, more sadness and more isolation despite their best efforts to stay connected, according to experts who presented the survey’s results Wednesday.

And declining mental health can be directly linked to heightened use of substances such as alcohol and marijuana, presenters said.

“We can’t underestimate how quarantine, stay-at-home orders, close proximity to family members and social distancing can impact substance use,” Georgette Harrison, director of clinical and community partnerships at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, said during the presentation.

Several towns around Connecticut have done similar versions of the survey to examine the same issues in their youth. In Greenwich, survey results from 2,800 students mirrored those in Darien, with most teens reporting increased feelings of depression and anxiety that psychologists have said are likely linked to COVID-19.

This is the fifth survey conducted in Darien since the Thriving Youth Task Force’s inception in 2008. The survey is anonymous and parents can choose for their children to opt out. Findings will inform future community programming, such as guest speakers well-versed in student success, said Emily Larkin, Thriving Youth’s program director.

The survey found that the percentage of teens who were drinking or using other substances jumped substantially sometime after ninth grade, with a large segment of 11th- and 12th-graders reporting either moderate or heavy use of alcohol and more infrequently marijuana.

“These are teens who are drinking frequently, heavily, and the consequences that they are reporting actually start to give us a little picture of what the party culture might be like in town,” Harrison said. Most of these teenagers report drinking heavily at parties, playing drinking games, blacking out and experiencing hangovers the following day, she said.

The survey also found that teenagers frequently leave town to get alcohol, which is the predominant substance of choice. Marijuana usage is also common among drinkers, while a small fraction of students reported using prescription drugs as well, Harrison said.

The two top factors students gave for not wanting to use substances were that they either had no desire to or that their parents were strict, she said.

Parents should dispel the myth that drinking in high school helps expose teenagers safely to drinking in college, she said.

“There’s absolutely no data to support this,” Harrison said. In fact, data shows that nine out of 10 adults with a substance disorder began using those substances before the age of 18, she said.

The presentation also included reaction from child psychologists, who spoke about how parents can reduce the likelihood that their children will use substances and how they check in on their children’s mental health.

Parents should establish clear rules and consistently enforce consequences when rules are broken, psychologist Tracey Masella said.

And every parent should encourage open and honest conversations around their child’s substance use and mental health, Macell said.

But all parents should recognize the immense amount of pressure students are facing while at Darien middle and high schools, the presenters said.

“The pressure to get good grades is so intense that students will go to great lengths to do that, at great cost to their mental health,” Macella said. “They will often resort to ways of relaxing and shutting off their brain that include substance use.”