By Mira Wang
Fourteen-year-old Jovianne Ojeda wears many hats. She’s a freshman at George Westinghouse College Prep, a volleyball and track athlete, an older sister, and a student activist. In between all those things, Ojeda is deeply involved in Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), an alliance organizing for education and racial justice across Chicago and Illinois.
In 2017 and 2018, she acted as the logistics team leader for VOYCE’s student-led research project called “Open Bottles Broken Policies.” As part of the project, she and other students were trained in participatory research methods, developed their own research questions, and interviewed their fellow students about why Chicago teens drink.
Though the published report did not separate out male and female responses, Ojeda said she remembered clear differences by gender.
“Most of the guys [that we interviewed] said they drank because of peer pressure and to have fun, but most of the girls who drank had things going on at home,” said Ojeda. “Girls had a negative reason to drink.”
According to the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey, 62 percent of 8th graders, 60 percent of 10th graders, and 52 percent of 12th graders did not drink any alcohol in the past year. However, there are still some worrying signs.
Historically, boys have had higher rates of underage alcohol use than girls. Now, multiple recent studies are finding that rates are converging or narrowing between boys and girls. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 8 percent of 14- and 15-year-old girls used alcohol in 2015, compared to 7.1 percent of boys in the same age group. So even though teens as a whole are less likely to drink, girls may be at a higher risk for underage drinking than boys.
In Chicago, Ojeda and the team of student researchers found that a majority of teens use alcohol to cope with issues of trauma, mental health, and stress.
“A lot of people see alcohol as fun, but they don’t think ahead. They might know it’s not okay, but they mostly see it as a way to escape and don’t care about side effects,” said Ojeda. “But from my work with VOYCE and the way I was raised, I feel I can see a little better the effects it can have.”
Ojeda said she has grown and learned more about herself through her work with VOYCE. She’s learned to cope with stress in healthier ways.
“I do a lot of very different things [to deal with stress],” said Ojeda. “I like to sleep, eat, do a lot of art, mess with my brother, and hang out with friends.”
In fact, the student-led VOYCE project found that positive relationships are key to helping Chicago teens make healthy choices. Though a parent or guardian may know about a young person’s alcohol use, they might not address underlying issues that youth are coping with that lead them to drink in the first place.
For Ojeda, she wants to emphasize that there are better ways for girls to deal with stress and trauma than drinking it away.
“My friends might only see the pain they have right now–they don’t focus on what’s going to happen,” she said. “I understand what they’re going through, but drinking is not the way to escape from pain and stress.”