Thursday, April 15, 2021

I am very grateful to Rabbi Tully Harcsztark and Rivka Press Schwartz for initiating the substance abuse survey in our high schools and writing their article on the results (“Substance Use in Yeshiva High Schools: A Look at the Data,” February 25, 2021). To acknowledge the survey identified a surprising problem with binge drinking; and to publicly present supporting data is a great step forward in transparency for our schools. In this case, it is transparency that even has the potential to save lives.

I hope the research will continue, in which case I do have four suggestions for any further surveys. First, while the survey’s analytical methodologies were rigorous, we know that nuances of question-phrasing can affect the responses one receives (“push polling”). It would be useful back-validation to interview a sample of survey respondents to confirm if they understood the questions in the same way that the researchers understood their answers.

Second, it would be useful to broaden the survey to encompass broader measures of mental health and its stressors. Binge drinking can, after all, be self-medication for other underlying issues, which may also affect a broader population. In order to best address the binge drinking, we may need to identify, understand and address the underlying issues.

Third, while it’s a good first step to know how our schools compare to national averages, our peer comparison population should really be other private and parochial schools.

Fourth, the results would be more actionable and transparent if they were not anonymized by school. While one can expect resistance to this, I believe that no school should fear knowing about health problems in its own student body more than it fears not knowing. As it is, when the results are undifferentiated by school, it is easier for institutions, communities and parents to continue believing the risk is probably somewhere else.

I intentionally waited several weeks to send this letter, in order to see if there would be any institutional or communal responses to the article. I have not seen any yet, suggesting that as individual communities we may in fact fall into that “see-no-evil” trap of thinking it is other peoples’ problem.

Dan Barenholtz