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CDC: Teen girls see spike in behavioral health concerns

Students considering, making plans for or attempting suicide increased over a decade

A bookmark for children with the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline emergency telephone number is displayed by a volunteer with the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force while speaking  about mental health and suicide awareness in Casper, Wyo. on Aug. 14, 2022.
A bookmark for children with the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline emergency telephone number is displayed by a volunteer with the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force while speaking about mental health and suicide awareness in Casper, Wyo. on Aug. 14, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

Teen girls who experience persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness skyrocketed over the past decade, according to a 10-year survey released Monday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC reports that almost all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts increased from 2011 to 2021, with higher rates seen among female and LGBQ+ students.

In 2021, 42 percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless regularly for at least a two-week period that they stopped doing their normal daily activities.

The percentage of students feeling consistently hopeless increased, as did the percentages reporting having seriously considered suicide, making suicide plans and attempting suicide. However, the percent of students injured during a suicide attempt did not increase.

The results come as public health experts, advocates, officials and lawmakers have issued warnings about the worsening mental health crisis for youth. Advocates have called for the administration to declare youth mental health an emergency, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended screening children and teens for depression and anxiety.

“Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion,” said CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health Director Kathleen Ethier. “With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish.”

The study, released Monday as part of CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report, showed that teen girls experienced worse outcomes compared to boys.

In 2021, 57 percent of teen girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless compared to 36 percent in 2011. For teen boys, 29 percent reported these feelings in 2021, and 21 percent in 2011.

Thirty percent of female students also reported “seriously considering” suicide and 24 percent made a “suicide plan” in 2021.

Teenage girls also reported higher rates of not going to school because of safety concerns, being electronically bullied, being bullied at school or being forced to have sex compared to teen boys. Almost 20 percent of female students reported experiencing sexual violence.

“High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive,” said Debra Houry, CDC’s chief medical officer and deputy director for Program and Science in a release. “Proven school prevention programs can offer teens a vital lifeline in these growing waves of trauma.”

CDC said that schools can incorporate evidence-based practices to improve youth mental health such as having teachers and mentors help students feel connected to their community and by teaching students about their emotions and sexual consent.

Congress has taken some steps to expand mental health programming.

The 2022 gun safety and mental health law provided $500 million for the school-based mental health services grant program and $240 million to fund mental health awareness and to detect youth mental health issues over four years. It also provided $150 million for implementation of the three-digit 988 Suicide and Crisis lifeline.

President Joe Biden also called to do “more on mental health, especially for our children” during his State of the Union address last week.

Stark disparities for some groups

While the report showed increases in the percentage of students who feel persistently sad or hopeless across all racial and ethnic lines, the numbers are especially stark for certain minority groups and LGBQ+ students.

Hispanic and multiracial students experienced feeling persistently sad or hopeless at higher rates than their Asian, Black and white peers. But Black students were more likely to attempt suicide than Asian, Hispanic and white teenagers.

In 2021, almost 70 percent of LGBQ+ students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless, and 20 percent reported attempting suicide. Fifty-two percent of LGBQ+ teens had poor mental health symptoms in the past 30 days compared to 29 percent of all teens.

Last week, a separate study included in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed that suicide deaths increased in 2021 after a two-year decline. A total of 48,183 individuals died by suicide in 2021 compared to 45,979 in 2020 or the 2018 peak of 48,344 deaths.

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