Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Mental Health Found to Be Worsening Among U.S. High School Students

The latest results from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey are in, and the data paint a concerning picture about the mental health of U.S. high school students, particularly among female students.

“Across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, female students are faring more poorly than male students,” noted the executive summary of The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011–2021.

The CDC conducts the Youth Risk Behavior Survey every two years among a nationally representative sample of U.S. public and private high school students. For the survey, students complete a nearly 100-item questionnaire during one class period. Among the findings of the surveillance data from fall 2021—the first collected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—were the following:

  • 42% of students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year. Nearly 60% of female students and nearly 70% of those who identified as LGBQ+* reported persistent sadness and hopelessness. 
  • 22% of students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year. In 2021, 30% of females reported having such thoughts—a jump from 19% in 2011. In 2021, 14% of males reported having such thoughts compared with 13% in 2011.
  • 10% of students attempted suicide at least once in the past year. The percentage of female students who attempted suicide increased from 10% in 2011 to 13% in 2021. The percentage of male students who attempted suicide increased from 6% in 2011 to 7% in 2021.

“[A]lthough Black students were less likely to report poor mental health and persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness than some other groups of students, they were significantly more likely than Asian, Hispanic, and White students to have attempted suicide,” the executive summary noted.

The report also includes the following chapters and key survey findings:

  • Sexual behavior: The proportion of high school students who engaged in sexual behaviors that increase their risks for HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy decreased from 2011 to 2021.
  • Substance use: Overall substance use among high school students decreased from 2011 to 2021. However, the percentage of students who used electronic vapor products or misused prescription opioids has not changed in recent years.
  • Experiencing violence: Although bullying at school decreased from 2011 to 2021, the percentage of students who missed school because of safety concerns and experienced sexual violence increased.
  • New and emerging national data: The 2021 questionnaire included three new questions to assess adolescents’ environments with a focus on protective factors (for example, social connectedness) and social determinants of health (for example, unstable housing). Because these questions were included for the first time in 2021, no trend data are available.

“These data make it clear that young people in the U.S. are collectively experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act,” the report stated. “Supporting schools in efforts to reverse these negative trends and ensure that youth have the support they need to be healthy and thrive will require partnership.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Surgeon General Calls for Action to Address Youth Mental Health Crisis” and APA Foundation’s Notice. Talk. Act. at School website.

*Because the 2021 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey did not have a question assessing gender identity, this report did not highlight data specifically on students who identify as transgender. Therefore, the T commonly used in the acronym LGBTQ+ is not included when referring to the data.

(Image: iStock/ti-ja)

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