The Bangor School Department wants to know what it needs to do to improve student mental health. But first it needs data on the well-being of its students.
That’s why an advisory group is recommending that Bangor students, for the first time, participate in a statewide student health survey that the Bangor school department has long refused to participate in. An advisory group focused on student mental health made the recommendation Wednesday to the Bangor School Committee.
If the Bangor school district takes the group on its recommendation to participate in the Maine Integrated Youth Health Study, it would mark a turnaround for Maine’s fourth-largest school district.
Bangor is one of about two dozen school districts in Maine whose students have traditionally not participated in the anonymous, biennial survey, which questions students on a wide variety of topics, including tobacco and drug use, drinking, sexual activity, exercise and diet, bullying and overall health. The survey also asked students questions such as whether they had ever considered suicide.
Bangor’s lack of involvement means the school department doesn’t know how closely the behavior and health of students in the town match those of students elsewhere in Maine.
When it comes to student mental health issues, this lack of information makes it difficult for the school department and mental health advisory group to know what students may be struggling with and how best to help them.
“We realized we don’t know what’s going on with our kids in terms of mental health,” said Dr. Claire Mandel, a school committee member and clinical psychologist who also serves on the advisory group.
Two years ago, a statewide survey showed that e-cigarette use by Maine students doubled over the course of two years, but there was no local data showing the extent to which Bangor students’ behavior matched the statewide numbers.
“If you look at the tobacco issue that we deal with, every college kid that I work with is addicted to nicotine and started in high school,” Mandel said. “The [Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey] will give us that data.’
According to the 2019 survey results, approximately 28 percent of Penobscot County students reported drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in the past 30 days, and nearly 41 percent of Penobscot County students reported using electronic vaping products in some point, according to the 2019 survey results.
About 16 percent of Penobscot County students had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past month, the 2019 survey found.
Bangor High School was the only high school in Greater Bangor whose students did not participate. Former Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said in 2019 that the school department relied on other sources of information to monitor the health and well-being of students.
While school board members and department administrators are interested in offering the voluntary survey, school principals have questions about how it will be administered and how students can opt out of taking it, said department spokesman Ray Finney. The school department wants to answer those questions before deciding whether to participate, he said.
There are four versions of the survey, making it suitable for students from kindergarten through high school, although Finney said the Bangor school department does not yet know what grades will be given on the survey if Bangor decides to participate.
Despite the lingering questions, Bangor Superintendent James Tagger said he sees value in offering the survey because it will show the department what students are struggling with and how to offer help.
“I think it’s important to do that, and we want to get reliable data,” Tager said. “If it helps kids, I’ll support it.”
Tager said she wants students to be able to opt out of the survey because she worries that asking students personal questions could trigger some trauma, past or present. That concern, however, doesn’t change the department’s willingness to participate, he said.
There is no evidence that simply asking students about health-risk behaviors will encourage them to try those behaviors, according to the Maine Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, which co-administered the survey.