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The kids are still not alright, Part I
Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Assessment survey show the kids are even less alright than they were in 2019.
In 2020, I wrote a story called “The Kids are Not Alright” for City Pages. (For either older readers or fans of 60s music, it’s a play on a song by The Who.)
The story was based on the Wausau School District asking voters on two different occasions (it finally passed in 2021) for increased funding to pay for more mental health professionals in schools. They were sorely needed, school mental health staff told me, because the numbers of teens expressing suicidal thoughts or feeling anxious or unsafe had increased.
I believed them. Why? Because I’d seen the data myself. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey detailed the same trends amongst Marathon County teens, and it was pretty stark. In nearly every mental health category, the stats were getting worse and worse.
The last survey had been conducted in 2019. With COVID-19’s impact on young folks who were kept for a long time from their peers, from school and other social outlets young people need, it was expected the results would be even worse.
COVID not only impacted children’s mental health, it delayed the survey itself, at its most critical juncture. At a time when people needed to know this information the most, they had the least access to it.
Now it’s out.
The results page is ironically a little difficult to read. I say ironically because it appears they provided symbols to make it easier to read, but the way they laid it out makes the results appear all over the place.
It’s not. The reality is every category in mental health is worse than it was last year. The good news is that the differences aren’t nearly as stark as anyone, including myself, expected. But they’re all still going the wrong direction.
I decided to lay them out one by one, with results:
Self-harm: 19% of students — nearly one in five — told surveyors that they harmed themselves in some way in the last year. That’s up from 16% last year, and more than the 18.5% state average. The trend has been generally increasing from the first year the survey was conducted in 2015 (14.5%).
Suicide attempts: 7% of teens surveyed said they had attempted suicide in the past year. That’s one in 14, or two of every high school class, to put things in perspective. That number was the same in 2019, but only (only?) 4% in 2015. It’s shocking to me that that number would be anything over 1%.
Suicidal thoughts: 16% of teens told surveyors they had considered suicide in the past year. That’s one in six. That’s a little less than the national average of 17% and up a little from 2019. In 2015 that number was 12%. If I’m interpreting that correctly, then almost half of those who thought about suicide attempted it as well.
Emotional support: 21% of teens told surveyors they get emotional support when they need it. That’s down from 23% when the surveyors first started asking about it. It’s a new category, and one that needs exploring. Who would be providing that support, and how? And what do they mean (both the surveyors and the respondents, and are they different?)?
Someone to talk to: Somewhat puzzling is the next question: 69% of teens told surveyors that they had an adult to talk to. That’s a slight decrease from the past three surveys, but the number has remained pretty steady (and a slightly lower value than the statewide number of 71%). Are we to interpret that as they have someone to talk to but aren’t getting emotional support? Or are teens looking to their peers for that support?
Supportive non-parent adult: This category was also new in 2019, and it appears the vast majority of teens (83%) have at least one supportive adult in their life who isn’t a parent. That is down from 86% in 2019 though.
Feeling depressed: 29% of teens felt sad or hopeless sometime in the past 12 months, according to the survey. That number has been steadily increasing — 21.5% of students felt that way in 2015. It’s gotten worse every year.
Talking to an adult: Almost answering our question from earlier, only 30% of teens said they talked to an adult for emotional support. That’s down from 34% in 2019, the first year surveyors asked that question.
Anxiety problems: Well, this is the big one. 45% of teens in the survey said they had significant problems with anxiety in the past 12 months. That’s up from 43% 2019, which is the first year they asked the question. Believe it or not, that number was higher (49%) statewide. So just about half of teens have problems with anxiety.
About the data
I sat down Friday morning with Laura Scudiere, Marathon County health officer, and Aaron Ruff, the department’s public information officer. The Health Department is looking at the data very carefully; it helps inform policy decisions.
A couple of things of note: The sample size is quite large. Just under 3,700 students were surveyed this year, which is more than half the student population of the county. That’s just about as good as it gets in terms of sample size. So rest assured the results are pretty accurate.
I didn’t cover it in the above summary, but there is more ability to drill into the data. Scudiere and Ruff point out that suicide attempts were much higher for girls than boys; but when you look at suicide data from the county, more men than women are committing suicide.
And, in terms depression, those numbers were much higher for teens who identified as LGBTQ+. That’s not a surprised, considering a survey conducted for the policing task force found exactly the same thing.
What does it all mean?
I admit, I’ve struggled a bit to frame this story. The obvious I suppose is as I stated it above — the kids are not alright, and they’ve become even less alright.
The question it raises, of course, is why? How would a survey from the 1990s, when I was a teen, compare to these results? How much of it is just growing pains, something we all go through? It can be hard to remember now but bad things seemed so much worse at that age than now, it’s natural if one were asked they’d report anxiety and depression.
And how much of it is about the way we talk about such things now versus then? Author Jonathan Haight points out that some of the values we instill in youth — hardline thinking (good vs evil, etc), always trust your feelings, safe spaces, etc — are setting up our youth for failure. It’s a compelling read.
But that said, I don’t think that totally gets at it. Social media certainly plays a factor. As I pointed out to the mental health staff members I spoke to in the Wausau School District, at least when I was in high school, if someone was being a tool, I didn’t have to see or hear from them until the next day. Modern teens get no such reprieve, since social media never sleeps. And Haight himself has pointed out that teen girls are very susceptible to depression caused by Instagram.
As is usually the case, it’s probably a confluence of factors.
I asked Scudiere about this. We talked about generational differences, social media influences, even extra stress that can be placed (or self-imposed) on high achievers. There are a likely confluences of factors. And that will take a confluence of solutions. “I say this a lot but there is no silver bullet, no one thing that can solve the problem,” Scudiere says. “It’s a systemic thing involving a number of different partners.”
Scudiere pointed out the school mental health consortium that’s been working to improve mental health resources in schools. But the need is much greater than the supply, she says.
Marathon County’s Health Board will be discussing the data from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Assessment Tuesday morning (8 am at the Marathon County Courthouse Assembly Room). There should be plenty of county leaders present asking important questions.
There is plenty more in the survey. Stay tuned for the next part of the series.
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