Last month, the CDC released a Youth Risk Behavior study that shows female and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning adolescents display a startling increase in mental health challenges compared to recent years. (Mackenzie Sroka)
Teen girls ‘engulfed in growing wave of sadness,’ new national data finds
American female and LGBQ+ youth display disproportionate mental health, violence and substance use struggles
Adolescent female and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning students display increasing mental health challenges as hopelessness, suicidality and sexual violence reach new highs, CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds.
Conducted every other year, the YRBS tracks 29 variables to “provide data on key behaviors and experiences related to sexual behavior, substance use, experience of violence, mental health and suicidality.” This data, collected in fall 2021, is the first since the coronavirus pandemic.
“Although most schools had returned to in-person instruction by that time … disruptions in daily life also remained common during the time of collection,” the data report reads. “Other research and surveys have described the impact of the pandemic, which was severe.”
Mental Health and Suicidality
Nearly three in five (57%) female students reported persistent sadness and hopelessness, compared to 36% a decade prior and 29% of male students. Multiracial and Hispanic students were more likely to be affected.
“It is especially heartbreaking to see the data for female and LGBQ+* students,” Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, said in a briefing. “We’ve been saying our nation is facing a huge mental health crisis, and this data makes it even more devastating.”
Similarly, 69% of LGBQ+ youth experienced persistent sadness and hopelessness, and 45% seriously considered suicide. Ultimately, 22% LGBQ+ and 13% female students reported a suicide attempt.
“I think that’s accurate,” junior Victoria Sadowski said. “I can’t really talk about this from personal experience, but I feel like it has to do a lot with societal pressure and expectations. I think that’s why the stats are so high.”
The CDC believes the coronavirus pandemic, among other factors, played a role in mental health challenges, as students were out of school and isolated.
“I think that [the pandemic] hardened people a lot, and, in regards to adolescents, it hardened their perception of the world prematurely,” Margaret Mitchell, MCHS social worker, said. “The influx on social media is a factor as well. It can be difficult to set boundaries … when it’s right at our fingertips.”
Though female and LGBQ+ youth were the most affected, 42% of all students surveyed felt sadness and hopelessness. Four out of six “Mental Health and Suicidality” variables were moving “in the wrong direction.”
LGBQ+ (18%) and female (22%) youth were too disproportionately affected by sexual violence, defined as non-consensual kissing, touching or being physically forced to have sex.
“Female and LGBQ+ students face far more adversity than their heterosexual male counterparts,” Nicole Czaja, MCHS social worker, said. “The lack of support can cause great harm … additionally, bills/laws targeting [them] enable violent and discriminatory behavior towards this population.”
A variable focused solely on being forced to have sex found 14% of female students and 22% of LGBQ+ students were affected. American Indian and multiracial youth were the most impacted.
“This is truly alarming,” Kathleen Ethier, CDC director of adolescent and school health, said in a briefing. “Think about what I just said. For every 10 girls you know, at least one of them, probably more, has been raped. This tragedy cannot continue.”
Though bullying at school decreased overall, rates remained higher for LGBQ+ youth at 23%. Cyberbullying through social media and text was also higher for female (20%), American Indian (21%) and LGBQ+ (27%) students.
Only two “Experiencing Violence” variables were headed “in the wrong direction.” Three showed no change, and one moved “in the right direction.”
Though substance use amongst adolescents decreased, female and LGBQ+ students were likelier to engage in substance use behaviors.
27% of female students reported drinking alcohol within the last 30 days, and 18% reported current marijuana use. For male students, 19% drank alcohol, and 14% used marijuana.
Why female students deal with substance use more than males is unclear, but the CDC theorizes it can be due to increased violence and mental health struggles.
“We know that, with sexual violence, it can be associated with mental health issues and substance abuse,” Houry said. “That’s why it’s so important to focus on prevention. There’s not one single thing leading to this.”
Additionally, 21% of LGBQ+ youth reported using illicit drugs in their lifetime. “Illicit drugs” included cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamines, hallucinogens or ecstasy. 20% also misused prescription opioid drugs.
From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of students using electronic vapor products decreased from 33% to 18%; however, LGBQ+ and female teens used said products more at 22% and 21%, respectively.
“Adolescent e-cigarette use in the United States poses a serious public health risk to our nation’s youth,” FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Brian Kind said. “Together with the CDC, protecting our nation’s youth from the dangers of tobacco products … remains among the FDA’s highest priorities.”
No “Substance Abuse” variables were headed “in the wrong direction.” Four were “in the right direction” and two showed no change.
Mental Health Support in Schools
In a Feb. 13 briefing, the CDC described schools as “vital lifelines” for students and called on them and Congress to support the nation’s youth.
“Many of the challenges [teens face] are preventable,” Houry said. “Schools are on the frontlines of the mental health crisis. And they must be equipped with the proven tools that help students thrive.”
At MCHS, the amount of families needing support has increased in recent years, as has the intensity of that support, Czaja noted.
“However, MCHS has done an amazing job in developing grade level teams to support the increased need,” she said. “Social work and psychologist support has been added for staff to be able to build relationships and support students in need.”
Upper Campus has three social workers, six counselors and three psychologists. Two counselors, one social worker and one psychologist are at the Freshman Campus. All can help students in need of support.
Each campus also has a “Chill Zone” where students can take a break or talk to a student services member, who can further help.
“We also work with students who might be experiencing a mental health crisis,” Maura Reid, MCHS prevention and wellness coordinator, said. “We help facilitate a Crisis Call where we have someone from outside of school perform a mental health evaluation [and] will work with the family to come up with the best course of action.”
Reid urges struggling students to reach out at any time and to bring a friend to provide comfort and support when talking to Student Services.
“If a student is concerned about having the school involved, they should speak with a trusted adult who could help them get connected to resources outside of the school system,” she said. “The McHenry County Mental Health Board’s website has all the social service agencies in the county listed with their information.”
Although MCHS has support for its students, some schools throughout the United States do not. Following the YRBS data, the CDC and advocacy groups have urged Congress to pass legislation increasing access to resources in schools and communities.
“While the YRBS data is beyond heartbreaking, it shows that we have, right now, to take action to address the youth mental health crisis with our nation’s leader,” King said. “Every adult should have a vested interest in ensuring our children and young people are home, physically and mentally. As my mama used to say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’”
*Editor’s Note: The Youth Risk Behavior Survey does not ask for gender identity, so the “T” in LGBTQ+ was not included in the data report or this article. The acronym LGBQ+ was used to describe non-straight orientations.
Vanessa Moreno is a senior at McHenry High School's Upper Campus. She loves physics, history and writing news stories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading dark fiction and listening to music. This is Vanessa's second year on the Messenger's staff.
Mackenzie Sroka is a senior at McHenry High School's Upper Campus. She enjoys spending time with friends, traveling, playing soccer and golf, and photography. This is Mackenzie's fourth year on the Messenger's staff.
Nikki Sisson is a senior at McHenry High School's Upper Campus. She enjoys art, music and hanging out with her friends. In her spare time, she teaches violin lessons at Pearl Street Music and plays in a band. This is Nikki's second year on the Messenger's staff.
NSPA Leadership Award in Student Journalism (2023)
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