While more young Vermonters are finding their voices when it comes to social justice issues around the state, they also have an opportunity to offer key input when it comes to substance abuse policies that affect them as well.

And they should speak up (plus, there is an incentive built in.) Substance abuse is one of the leading factors affecting young people ranging from 12 to 25. The recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed substance abuse — drugs and alcohol — has ripple effects on young Vermonters across a range of areas, including peer pressure, bullying and more.

Vermont health experts have relied on these surveys conducted every two years to inform substance use prevention programs and policies. But a lot can happen in two years. Policy and Communication Evaluation, or PACE, aims to reach out to young people ages 12 to 25 to better understand and improve the impact of policies and communication campaigns on their substance use beliefs and behaviors, according to a news release issued this week.

The PACE Vermont study is a partnership between the Department of Health and the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. The study will recruit 3,000 participants who will each complete three brief online surveys, spread out over a period of six months. Youth and young adult participants can earn at least $50 in online gift cards for completing all three surveys.

UVM Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychological Science Andrea Villanti said there is a lot of excitement about the opportunity this study presents.

“We see great value in the ability to inform substance use prevention efforts based on what’s happening right now in the lives of teens and young adults,” she said. “The study is designed to be flexible and nimble, so we can keep up with young Vermonters who live in a rapidly changing environment.”

The input is invaluable.

The surveys will delve into young Vermonters’ thoughts and opinions on issues that include tobacco, alcohol and substance use behaviors and beliefs, their awareness of related policies and their exposure to/knowledge of statewide tobacco and substance use communication campaigns and prevention efforts.

“PACE Vermont gets to the heart of understanding what young Vermonters think, feel and do when it comes to substance use, policies and health campaigns,” said Christie Vallencourt, who leads the PACE Vermont effort for the Health Department.

Parents need to first provide permission for their minor children to participate. They will have access to the study’s progress and key findings and can connect with other participating families on the PACE Vermont social media sites. Individual survey responses are confidential.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine indicated the findings from this study, which is funded by his department and the UVM Cancer Center, will be an innovative and valuable complement to the data from the state’s other surveys of Vermont youth.

“The near real-time aspect of the PACE Vermont survey will give us timely and unique insights into what young people are thinking right now about behaviors, practices and our efforts to impact them,” Levine said. “The data will be used to guide our efforts to improve the health of Vermonters for years to come.”

The PACE Vermont study team is encouraged so far by the response rate: More than 300 individuals signed up in just the first few days after the survey opened.

Whether it’s combating rape culture, fighting for the environment and gun control, or standing up against systemic racism and LGBTQ+ issues, it’s inspiring to see more young people taking control over their destiny and helping to set policy that not only will make their lives better — but improve the lives of all Vermonters for decades to come.

It is not important for adults to understand the motivating factors that spur these young people along. But we must encourage it, because — as we all know — doing so will only foster the future leaders of Vermont. And those are the right seeds to be sowing now.

To participate in the survey, visit pacevt.org.

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