Data from state surveys on youth behavior show the continuation of a concerning trend in high school students feeling persistently “sad or hopeless.”
As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the CDC and many states administer surveys to high school students across the country every other year, with results reported in the alternating years. As part of these Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, students are asked whether in the past year they have felt sad or hopeless nearly every day for at least two weeks, to the degree that they could not engage in some of their usual activities.
After remaining relatively stable from 1999 to 2017, the proportion of students nationally who had struggled with these feelings rose by over 5 percentage points from 2017 (31.5%) to 2019 (36.7%). And while 2019 is the latest year for which national survey data is currently available, at least four states – Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah – have published results that indicate state-specific increases in 2021. All four states showed increases of at least 4 percentage points since their last reports.
Since 2019, for example, North Dakota’s reported percentage of students experiencing this despair grew from 30.5% to 36% (+5.5), while Montana’s rose from 36.7% to 41.4% (+4.7) and Utah’s from 36.7% to 41.5% (+4.8).
In Indiana, 46.9% of students had felt sad or hopeless – a 17.6-point increase from the state’s last recorded figure in 2015.
While such figures began ticking up before the arrival of COVID-19, youth mental health has been of particular concern since the onset of the pandemic. To evaluate the impacts of the pandemic on students, the CDC developed an additional survey administered from January to June 2021 to a representative sample of American high school students. While the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey employed different methods – and researchers say its data should not be compared with Youth Risk Behavior Survey findings – it featured the same question, and found that 44.2% of students experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness.
This experience is felt at different levels among different demographic groups, national YRBS data shows In 2019, girls in the U.S. struggled with persistent sadness or hopelessness at a rate of 46.6% – nearly 20 points higher than boys (26.8%). The differences were also stark for members of the LGBTQ+ community, where 66.3% of students identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual had dealt with this despair, compared with 32.2% of straight students.
The nonpartisan data center USAFacts notes that children experiencing discrimination based on race or ethnicity are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and children growing up in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions. As the pandemic and other factors contribute to a rise in youth mental health issues, these populations also are particularly vulnerable.
At the end of 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released an advisory warning of the impacts of the pandemic on youth mental health, citing that “recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.”
In late July, the Biden–Harris administration announced efforts to address the youth mental health crisis, including the awarding of federal funds for mental health support in schools.