Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Kids Better Off Than City Kids? Think Again!

April 17, 2000

Drug use is on the rise among rural youth. A recently released report, commissioned by the United States Conference of Mayors, found higher rates of alcohol and drug use among eighth, tenth and twelfth graders from rural areas than among those grade groups in medium or even large cities. Rural areas were defined as being counties with no central city over 50,000 in population, medium cities being between 50,000 and one million in population and large cities as having over one million in population.

Compared to urban eighth graders, rural eighth graders are twice as likely to use amphetamines; 50 percent more likely to use cocaine; 34 percent likelier to smoke marijuana; 29 percent likelier to drink alcohol and 70 percent likelier to get drunk. They are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and nearly five times likelier to use smokeless tobacco. Use rates for rural tenth graders exceed those from large urban areas for every drug except Ecstasy and marijuana. Use rates for rural twelfth graders exceeded urban youth for cocaine, crack, amphetamines, inhalants, alcohol, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

In a 1999 study in Washington State, researchers compared many factors that were linked to alcohol, tobacco and drug use. They included juvenile arrest rates, low school achievement, and family history of substance abuse between youth from King county of greater Seattle with 1.67 million people and youth from 11 rural counties in the eastern part of the state. Juvenile arrest rates, low school achievement and family history of substance abuse were all more prevalent in the group of rural counties.

Rural adults and substance abuse. Adults from the rural areas are also just as likely to abuse substances as those in large metropolitan areas. However from 1990 to 1998, the smaller the city, the larger the increase in drug law violations. The largest category was in cities of 10,000 or less where the increase in drug law violations was six times the larger cities.

Drugs are as available in rural areas as they are in medium and large metropolitan areas. Among adults 18 or older - with the exception of marijuana - there was no statistical difference in illicit drug use between large cities, mid-size cities and rural areas. Among adults, the use of cocaine and amphetamines are identical between large cities and areas with a population of 2,500 or less. Marijuana use among those 18 to 25 years of age has dropped in metropolitan areas. By 1998, the use of marijuana by rural young adults in the 18 to 25 year-old group is statistically equivalent to the same age group in larger and medium size cities.

Methamphetamine is the hot drug in rural areas. Drug trafficking is greater and seizures of meth labs jumped from 244 to 1,627 from 1994 to 1998. This sevenfold increase was concentrated in the less populated areas of the West and Mid-west.

What are the social costs? Although all this information was not broken down by population density, research has shown that nationally 30 percent of all criminal arrests are related to drug abuse violations or alcohol related events. Seventy-seven percent of the individuals housed in local jails have been involved in drug or alcohol related offenses. Substance abuse is among the top three causes of child abuse and neglect cases. Seventy-seven percent of local jail costs and 70 percent of local child welfare costs are substance abuse-related.

Smaller communities don’t have a sufficient tax base to hire additional law enforcement officers. They have fewer treatment professionals, resources or programs to deal with rural youth drug and alcohol problems. Funding for these programs has an urban bias. To deal with the problems as they actually exist, 22 percent of the current funding in substance abuse services block grants needs to be shifted from urban to rural states.

What are the community factors? A recent North Dakota State University study by Laura DeHaan and others compared high risk and low risk rural communities for teen drug and alcohol abuse. The main conclusion was that community attitude makes a big difference in the amount of teen high risk behavior. Communities which had a higher risk for teen alcohol, drug and other high risk behaviors shared the following attitudes.

1. A culture of drinking. Teen drinking is accepted as normal. The amount of drinking done by adults seemed to be a key factor.

2. The community and family feel powerless. "There is not much we can do about it."

3. There is low family or community involvement between teens and their parents and other adults. The parents are overextended or put a low premium on family time. There is little adult guidance for activities or values.

4. There is a low amount of community investment of time and monetary resources in youth activities.

5. Community values show tolerance toward risk behavior. Parents and the community enable or deny the problem of teen drinking and other high risk behaviors. There is a lack of unity regarding zero tolerance approaches to law violations and teen misbehavior.

6. There is economic hardship. Towns with struggling economies or experiencing decline are at greater risk than towns with viable economies.

Rural America has more than its share of teens who are at risk for drinking and drug abuse. Do you believe it? This is no time to fall back on the myth of rural superiority. Rural communities need to be proactive in coming together with greater focus and concern. A watchful and caring community can unify in purpose to combat the real threat that is in its midst. When rural communities function well, then they are a good place to raise children.