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Teenagers across the United States are experiencing an increase in mental health challenges, but girls and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning (LGBTQ+) are faring worse than boys and heterosexual teens, concludes a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey report draws on survey data collected every two years among a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school students. This year’s report is the first YRBS data presented since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey had more than 17,000 respondents and was conducted in fall 2021 when many schools were still in remote or hybrid learning.
In 2021, 42 percent of high school students said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, according to the report. This is a 13.5 percent increase from 2019 and a 50 percent increase from 2011.
Fifty-seven percent of female students and 69 percent of LGBTQ+ students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year, compared with 29 percent of male students and 35 percent of heterosexual students, the report found.
When it comes to suicide, 22 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year; 18 percent made a suicide plan; and 10 percent attempted suicide, the report found. LGBTQ+ students were most likely to report having suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared with their peers.
While the report doesn’t examine what factors are causing the upsurge in mental health problems, changes in how people interact with each other, increases in misinformation, societal conflict, and social isolation from the pandemic could have been contributing factors, said Kathleen Ethier, the director of adolescent and school health for the CDC.
The findings underscore that teens’ mental health is declining and that schools, parents, and the community need to provide resources to support teens.
“At a time when schools are increasingly being turned into political battlegrounds in the ‘culture war,’ we must remember that real, young lives are at stake,” said Ronita Nath, the vice president of research at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth, in a written statement. “Our schools must be safe places where all students can learn and find support, not a consistent source of bullying and discrimination.”
What schools can do?
Schools are “on the frontline of the youth mental health crisis,” Ethier said. “We must give them the tools they need to support young people.”
While 61 percent of high school students felt a sense of “school connectedness,” the CDC recommended continuing to build that through social-emotional learning programs, youth development efforts, and professional learning for educators on classroom management practices.
The agency also recommended increasing and improving school-based health services. This could mean providing physical health, behavioral, and mental health services directly or by connecting students and families to community-based sources.
Kayla Jackson, a project director for AASA, The School Superintendents Association, acknowledged that, since the return to in-person learning, many schools have already been working on ensuring students feel connected to their school community and improving school-based health services.
But schools need more trained school-based health professionals to address this crisis, Jackson said.
Donna Mazyck, the executive director for the National Association of School Nurses, agreed. “Schools need state and district level policies and programs in collaboration with state and local mental health, family, and youth development community groups,” she said.
The CDC also recommended implementing quality health education for all grades. It should be “grounded in science, medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally and LGBTQ+ inclusive.” When schools are developing health education programming, the CDC said it’s best to include parents, community partners, and students in the discussions.
Jackson agreed that health education in schools needs to be more comprehensive. It should be a required class every year, for more than a semester, she said. And it should “eliminate the stigma and discrimination that our young people feel so that we don’t consistently see higher rates of suicide ideation among LGBTQ+ students.”
Other findings from the report:
- The proportion of high school students who engaged in sexual behaviors that could increase their risks for sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy decreased from 2011 to 2021. For example, 30 percent of high school students in 2021 said they’ve had sex, compared with 47 percent in 2011. But there were also decreases in condom use (52 percent in 2021 vs. 60 percent in 2011) and HIV testing (6 percent in 2021 vs. 13 percent in 2011).
- The percentage of high school students who drink alcohol (23 percent), use marijuana (16 percent), have used illicit drugs (13 percent), and have misused prescription opioids (12 percent) decreased from 2011 to 2021, but there have been no changes in the percentage of high school students who use e-cigarettes (18 percent) or misuse opioids (6 percent).
- The percentage of high school students who reported being bullied at school decreased from 20 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2021, but there were no changes in the percentage of cyberbullying.
- There was also an increase in the percentage of students (9 percent) who didn’t go to school because of safety concerns. These rates were highest for LGBTQ+ (14 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native (13 percent), Black (12 percent), and Hispanic (11 percent) students.