Student Risk Behavior and Academics – The Prescription for Success and Wellness

A new info graphic was released last week that looks at the association between academic grades and health behaviors.  The info graphic comes from a special technical report based off of 2013 data from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.  This is a survey conducted every two years in Maine public schools and coordinated by the Maine Departments of Health and Human Services and Education.  This new report sheds some new light on how grades and health risks are inter-related and points to where we as a State need to provide new focus to make sure our youth are given every opportunity to thrive and succeed.

The Data

academic grades info graphicfrom Student Risk Behavior and Academics, 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS) - Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services

The inforgraphic focuses on the association between academic grades and smoking, underage drinking, physical activity, and suicidal thoughts.  Let’s take smoking, for example.  Of the students who indicated in the MIYHS that they mostly get D’s and F’s, over one-third of them also indicated they had smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days.  Nearly half, or 48% of students getting mostly Ds and Fs reported drinking in the past 30 days.  Data for marijuana was not included in the info graphic but can be found in the full technical report.  There you will see 50% of students reporting they are mostly getting Ds and Fs indicated they had used marijuana in the past 30 days.

Students who are getting As and Bs are more likely to be engaging in regular physical activity.  Over half of A students, and just under half of B students reported being physically active for 60 minutes in 5 of the last 7 days.  Under one-third of students getting Ds and Fs were getting regular physical activity.  Looking at suicidal thoughts, 9% of students getting As reported seriously considering attempting suicide in the past 12 months.  That percentage increases to 34% amongst students getting mostly Ds and Fs.

What Does This Mean?  What Does this NOT Mean?

It is important to note, as the info graphic states, that the point isn’t to say that drugs, lack of physical activity, and suicidal thoughts are causing bad grades.  We also cannot say the opposite, that a student doing poorly academically is causing these risky behaviors.  However, I think we can agree that this data clearly represents a red flag that we as a state need to address.  The association in all of these categories are too strong to chalk up to coincidence.

Clearly, there are very prominent barriers to education for a significant portion of Maine students, additionally, it appears there may be linkages with health and risky behaviors.  At the very least this is an indication we need to pay closer attention to what’s going on with these students.  As the report concludes, these associations do mean we should be looking at assessing students who are struggling with their academics to see if there are unmet needs around physical and behavioral health.

Charting a New Path

Within the medical setting, we have SBIRT, protocols, or Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral Treatment.  The idea is if you can catch the early warning signs of someone, for example, developing a drinking problem, you can intervene with a brief intervention to prevent the patient from developing a more serious problem that would require more serious treatment.  A brief intervention can be as simple as a conversation between the doctor and patient about drinking patterns. If the individual is found to be at a higher risk level, you have the opportunity to refer them to someone who can provide the appropriate help.

Data such as that presented in this report, suggests it is time to develop an SBIRT model for the school setting that looks at academics as a potential red flag for health.  The goal would be the same, to catch warning signs early enough so you can link the child to appropriate services and avert more serious health issues.  This should be coupled with help within the school setting to identify and begin to address the issues contributing to the student’s academic struggles.  Certainly, there are protocols already in place in schools to provide assessments around health and protocols that look at academics.  The point is to ensure these two systems are talking to each other so that a student receives help for both.  This kind of “wrap-around” approach, if provided universally, can help keep more of our youth on a path of wellness and success.

There is a lot of talk at the State House to expand gambling or legalize drugs to generate tax revenues for building schools.  However, those kinds of initiatives are missing the point.  We can build all of the shiny, state-of-the-art schools we want, but these barriers to education are far deeper and cannot be fixed by brick and mortar.  Until we can come together as a state and address these real education issues, we will continue to leave far too many Maine youth behind.


Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.