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Our Current Condition: The Prevalence of Problems
Oregon has better information on its youth than do many states. Since 2000, the Oregon Healthy Teens Survey has collected data on the prevalence of all major adolescent psychological and behavioral problems from anonymous surveys of students at representative samples of middle schools and high schools around the state.
Figure 2 shows the percentage of eighth and eleventh grade adolescents who, in 2005-2006, reported engaging in each of the most common and costly problems of adolescence. Inspection of the trends in these problems over the last six years shows that Oregon is improving slightly on the prevalence of youth smoking (Figure 3).
There is clear evidence that the Oregon Tobacco Prevention and Education Program has contributed to this decline.2 However, youth use of alcohol has risen in the last three years, especially among eighth-grade students. In addition, the increase in eighth grade is greater among girls than among boys. There has been little reliable change over the last several years on most other problems.
Youth with multiple problems
Problem behaviors run in packs; youth with one problem are likely to have other problems as well.1 Table 1 shows the proportion of adolescents reporting common problems and the proportion of those with each problem reporting at least one other problem. For example, among the 9% of Oregon eighth graders who reported smoking, 95% reported at least one other problem. Among the 9% of Oregon eighth graders reporting antisocial behavior, 86% reported at least one other problem.
Adolescents with multiple problems account for the lion’s share of the difficulties. Although fewer than 20% of youth have multiple problems, that 20% accounts for over 75% of drunk driving, violent crime, total arrests, and health problems associated with drug or alcohol use and improper needle use.3 Few people sympathize with multiproblem youth. Yet practically speaking, if we do not stop the development of these problems and treat them more effectively when they do occur, we will continue to incur enormous costs. Failing to ensure that troubled youth receive appropriate treatment in a timely manner for family, mental health, or substance use problems increases the chances that they will struggle academically, drop out of school, get into trouble with the law, and enter the corrections or child welfare system, incurring huge financial and human costs in the process.3
Furthermore, it is important to note that these problems have a disproportionate impact on those youth and families in the minority—ethnically, racially, linguistically, or economically. That is, minority and low-income populations are over-represented among youth who struggle academically, receive discipline referrals, need mental health services, and are involved in the juvenile justice system.4 As America becomes increasingly diverse, we must ensure that all of our youth, including our most vulnerable, are being raised in family, school, and community environments that promote their success.