Student Well-Being

Female and LGBTQ+ Teens Report Record-High Levels of Mental Health Challenges, CDC Finds

By Lauraine Langreo — February 13, 2023 5 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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.”

See Also

Andria Amador, Senior Director of Behavioral Health Services for Boston Public Schools, holds out a bucket to Veda Peteet, 3, Zara Peteet, 5, and Tom Peteet, 40, while hosting a table at Building Balance, a mental health event at the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass., on Jan. 21, 2023.
Andria Amador, the senior director of behavioral health services for Boston Public Schools, with Veda Peteet, 3, Zara Peteet, 5, and Tom Peteet, 40, during a mental health event at the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass.
Sophie Park for Education Week

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.

See Also

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7.
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Biden Calls for More Mental Health Care at Schools in State of the Union
Libby Stanford, February 7, 2023
6 min read

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.

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion What Does the Dangerous Political Climate Mean for Schools?
Educators and researchers offer advice for navigating political polarization in the classroom.
5 min read
Grunge Collage styled urban graphic of US election
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Why Educators Need to Better Understand What Drives Kids' Cellphone Addictions
As more school and day-to-day tasks are completed on smartphones and computers, teens struggle to manage their screen time.
3 min read
Young man and woman without energy on giant phone screen with speech and heart icons above them. Addiction. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A When Social Media and Cellphones Are Lifelines to Kids Who Feel Different
Like it or not, social media is an important venue for teens to find community and hone their identities.
4 min read
Young girl looking on mobile phone screen with multicolored social media icons. Finding community, belonging. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication and connection.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A ‘It’s OK to Not Be on Your Phone’: An 18-Year-Old on Teaching Cellphone Etiquette
Whether it's asking permission to take a photo of someone or dimming a screen in a movie theater, kids need lessons in cellphone etiquette.
3 min read
Photo collage of hands holding phones with communication symbols superimposed. Learning phone etiquette.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock/Getty Images