Study: Drug use low, self-harm above average at Pembroke Academy

  • More than 700 students at Pembroke Academy took part in a periodic Youth Risk Behavior survey last year. NICK REID / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, April 30, 2016

Compared with state averages, Pembroke Academy students reported relatively low-risk behaviors with drugs on a survey administered last year.

Their self-reported answers relating to sadness and suicidal thoughts, however, were mostly higher than other high schools in the state and higher than the same Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in 2013.

The survey, which is conducted periodically to assess risky behaviors dealing with alcohol, drugs, sex and violence, was taken last year by 715 of the 851 students at the high school and released in February. The school is holding a forum to discuss the results with parents May 11.

Headmaster Paul Famulari said that the school’s intervention specialist met with the administration last week to discuss the results. The staff noted “a couple areas of concern,” namely issues surrounding depression, anxiety and self-injury, where they saw an “uptick” in the statistics.

Twenty-nine students reported that they’d attempted suicide, resulting in an injury that had to be treated by a doctor or a nurse, or about 3.5 percent of the respondents. That number is 1.4 times the state average and 1.5 times the 2013 results at Pembroke Academy, according to the survey.

In all, 76 students reported that they’d attempted suicide – counting those attempts that didn’t result in a serious injury – or about 9.4 percent of survey respondents. That figure is also 1.4 times the state average and 1.2 times the 2013 result.

About 18 percent of students reported that they’d “seriously considered” attempting suicide and 23 percent said they’d “purposely hurt themselves without wanting to die”; each figure is 1.2 times the state average.

Outside of that category of questions, the students consistently reported less risky behavior than their peers. They’re less likely to use or abuse alcohol (13.4 percent said they’d had five or more drinks in a row), to have had or been forced into having sex (5.7 percent said they were physically forced into sex), to have been injured in a physical fight (3.1 percent) or to have used most illegal drugs, according to the report.

Students reported that they’re about 20 percent less likely than average to have been offered, sold or given drugs on school property (12.9 percent). They’re also less likely by about 10 percent, however, to have spoken with their parents about the dangers of substance misuse (57 percent).

The survey asked specifically whether students had taken a number of different drugs. Compared with the state average, fewer students at Pembroke Academy reported having used synthetic marijuana (8.6 percent), marijuana (15.3 percent currently use), ecstasy (3.7 percent) or prescription drugs without a doctor’s permission (11.4 percent).

The number of students reporting that they’d used methamphetamines (2.4 percent) was on par with the state average. The number reporting that they’d used cocaine (5.5 percent), heroin (2.9 percent) or inhalants (8 percent) were slightly higher than the state averages.

The headmaster said that Jay Bachelder, the intervention and prevention specialist, reacted proactively to the results to try to make changes to curriculum building-wide, especially in getting teachers prepared to assist students who are depressed.

Famulari said the high school has four guidance counselors who are well-trained in crisis management, but he’d like to get his staff broad training so students can go to whatever teacher they feel most comfortable talking to.

“They can go to any administrator in the building . . . but really, I want to see them feel comfortable reaching out to any staff members they come in contact with,” he said, noting that some of the staff is already trained by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and he hopes more will be this summer.

The school’s health curriculum touches on depression, self-harm and suicide, he said, but he’s looking to see where those topics could be addressed in other areas – especially for students who are struggling at moments when they’re not taking health.

“It’s the Catch-22,” he said. “You don’t know that they’re hurting, and they’re not willing to come forward and tell you.”


Throughout the state, about 30 percent of students reported that it was “easy or very easy” to access prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription.

That figure is slightly less than half the corresponding numbers for marijuana and alcohol, but some analysts said it should still be startling in light of the state’s opioid epidemic – and the statistic that 13 percent of surveyed students don’t perceive a moderate or great risk from using prescription drugs without a prescription.

Lisa Vasquez, who works for Nashua’s division of public health and serves as the substance abuse prevention coordinator for the region, said too many kids think prescription drugs are safe simply because they come from a doctor, “which is an erroneous position to have.”

Following a countrywide campaign against cigarettes – and a corresponding decrease in their use – it’s also troubling to see that 25 percent of surveyed students said they currently use “electronic vapor products,” a smoking alternative that can be filled with tobacco or other substances.

“That’s surprising because they’re so new to the market,” she said.

Vasquez said she remembers when she was in school hearing about Great American Smokeout and running home to tell her father to quit smoking. She said that kind of effort, sustained over many years at public schools, could help fight the misuse of tobacco and other substances.

“We don’t have that kind of in-school smoking campaign everywhere,” she said. “A lot of parents think, ‘If I don’t talk about it, my kids won’t know about it,’ or they think the school is taking care of that. There’s not enough funding for the schools to take care of that consistently from elementary through high school,” she said.

Substance misuse can be tied to depression, she said, and it’s more difficult for parents to teach their children coping skills when they’re working long hours, especially when kids are bombarded with misinformation on the

Schools “really don’t have time to teach kids great coping skills because we’re so focused on their academic skills, and we expect them not to need substances to deal with anxiety and depression,” she said.

“Parents have a lot of jobs right now. They have to be computer geniuses and guards of what their kids are reading online. They have to be prevention educators on substance misuse. They have to be academic advisers,” she said.

Forums like the one Pembroke Academy is hosting, therefore, can be of great value for the community, she said, especially when it’s tailored to the specific weak points identified in the survey.

Pembroke’s community forum is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Pembroke Academy on May 11.