Richland and Wilkin County K-12 school counselors, health and physical education teachers met in Breckenridge, Minnesota, on Monday, Nov. 25 to discuss, educate and collaborate ways to create a healthier community for youth.
This summit comes off the heels of recent Minnesota and North Dakota data indicating issues in schools such as vaping and e-cigarette use, other substance use, mental health and parental engagement, signifying the need for change.
The Wilkin County We Care Coalition sponsored this K-12 Health Summit. Breckenridge, Campbell-Tintah, Fairmount, Hankinson, Ligerwood, Richland, Rothsay, St. Marys, Wahpeton and Wyndmere schools were invited to discuss and collaborate health-related issues in the community.
Ashley Wiertzema, We Care Coalition coordinator, Ariel Johnson with Project YES Coalition and Breckenridge 7-12 Principal Craig Peterson moderated this event. The moderators’ goal is to “swim upstream” against the pervasive health issues that face youth in Richland and Wilkin County, they explained.
They called for the need to educate students, parents and teachers on the risk of vaping and e-cigarette use and the sharp incline of mental illnesses in youth. These two are the greatest concern for schools currently.
“We need you. You see the kids most often, K-12, than I will ever. You are the eyes and ears into these kids’ lives and probably have more creative ideas. Keep your eyes and ears open and spread the word,” Wiertzema said.
Peterson called for a greater collaboration among school health professionals across the communities to combat these concerns and cultivate healthier communities. The group intends to meet again in the upcoming months for further collaboration.
The We Care Coalition designates three top issues that concern the health of youth. In recent years, the order has been underage drinking, tobacco use including e-cigarettes and vaping, and marijuana in third. However, the use of e-cigarettes and vaping has caused this to become the number one concern.
In Wilkin County, vaping is the largest substance used which is parallel with statewide results, according to the 2019 Student Survey (MSS) results.
Six percent of eighth-graders, 12 percent of ninth-graders and 34 percent of eleventh-graders reported vaping in the last 30 days, compared with state-wide results of 11 percent of eighth-graders, 15 percent of ninth-graders and 27 percent of eleventh-graders reported vaping in the last 30 days. Statewide results show a 54 percent increase in vaping from the 2016 survey.
“We know that as e-cigarettes have moved across the state and have risen in popularity, we saw an increase in rural counties overall. We have higher percentages of e-cigarette use and vaping in rural counties than at the state level,” Wiertzema said.
MSS results show students perceive smoking marijuana, vaping and Juuling to cause the lowest harm when compared to smoking cigarettes, binge drinking and the misuse of prescription drugs. The educational component is one task that school health professionals are attempting to tackle.
“There’s a lot of kids out there right now that simply don’t acknowledge the fact of what they are doing,” Richland 44 School Counselor Chris Potter said. “There seems to be this lack of stigma. Kids are generally making really good decisions in most areas but this is that one usage that there are some real misconceptions on.”
As of Nov. 2019, there have been 2,290 cases of lung injury and 47 deaths were associated with e-cigarette and vaping products from 49 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of October 2019 in Minnesota, 73 patients with severe lung injuries have been classified as vaping as being the probable cause and 32 cases are being reviewed. A total of three deaths have been confirmed due to complications from severe lung injuries associated with vaping in Minnesota.
E-cigarettes and vaping products, such as JUUL, have been marketed as being a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes and a tool for relieving addiction to cigarettes. Although, there is controversy about this marketing design. Such products have a large variety of appealing flavors, compared to a small number of tobacco flavors. Additionally, these products are not classified as a prescription to end the addiction to cigarettes. There are currently no regulations or manufacturing checks that go into these products.
School health professionals emphasized the issue of controlling the use of these products. Schools have instituted bathroom monitors and locking locker rooms to deter students from vaping. These products come in many discrete forms such as a watch or sweatshirt strings.
Potter called for the need for stronger communication and collaboration with law enforcement. “Collaboration with them would be super helpful because they are the ones that are up on the latest trends and know what’s out there,” Potter said.
Wiertzema, Johnson and Peterson emphasized the need for a grassroots movement due to the lack of regulations on vaping products. Their goal is to collaborative among the health school professionals by sharing ideas or ongoing movements so that collectively the group can work on lowering the use of vaping products.
The other great issue that both counties face is mental illness. Peterson said that even though this is one of the safest generations, it is the generation that is experiencing the highest numbers of mental illnesses.
School counselors and Peterson shared their experiences with students who have an overwhelming amount of anxiety. A large concern is that students experience anxiety and then rely on substances, such as vaping, to relieve anxiety.
In Wilkin County, data indicates approximately one ain three eleventh graders have reported a long term, lasting six months or greater, mental health, behavioral, or emotional problem.
“It is higher than the state average. But we also know that only one and six students have been treated for mental health, behavioral, or emotional problem,” Wiertzema said.
“The next steps: keep that collaboration going and think of a project that you can do in your classroom, school or even in your community where you can get this information out. Whether it’s parent communication, vaping education, working with your local city council, mental health education or having older kids help out younger kids,” Peterson said. “Whether it works or it does not. We have that failure equals growth mindset and we go from there.”
The next K-12 Health Summit is expected to take place in February 2020.