September 29, 2022
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Report reveals pandemic’s impacts on Utah adolescents’ mental, physical health

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah teenagers experienced a significant increase in mental health concerns and a marked decrease in substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

The findings, released Tuesday by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services and Utah Board of Education, come from the Prevention Needs Assessment survey conducted in 2021 and given to a random sample of students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. The survey is conducted in odd calendar years with parental consent.

The survey includes questions about chronic health conditions, physical activity and safety issues. Results help educators, parents and public health officials identify concerning trends or note areas of improvement to inform policy decisions or action.

“Without this data, we wouldn’t be able to identify trends in risk behaviors or evaluate the success of programs that increase protective factors,” said Michael Friedrichs, deputy state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, in a statement.

Some of the trends identified by health officials were expected and have continued to worsen over the years. Among those trends was decreasing physical activity, with only 16.8% of students meeting recommendations; increasing obesity, with 10.3% of students reporting as obese; and an increasing percentage of students with mental health concerns.

Mental health among adolescents has been a persistent problem in Utah, with suicide being the leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 17 years old. While the trend wasn’t unexpected by health officials, the sharp increase in mental health concerns since 2019 is of concern.

According to the report:

  • 18.6% of students reported self-harm; 19% of students seriously considered suicide; 14.4% of students made a suicide plan; and 7.0% of students made one or more suicide attempts.
  • 35.1% of students reported feeling sad or hopeless — a significant increase from 2019 data (30.7%).
  • 27.1% of students reported psychological distress.

While the increase is startling, Friedrichs noted that the metric of suicidal ideation and plans were consistent between the years.

“We saw, really, a leveling off over the last four or five years. So, I’d like to believe that the programs that we have in schools — the SafeUT app, the QPR (Institute) and other Hope Squad-type programs, the Trevor Project — that those kinds of programs that we’ve made available are having some effect and keeping kids from progressing from depression and anxiety to thoughts of taking their own lives,” said Friedrichs.

An increase in mental health concerns for both adolescents and adults alike was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory regarding the youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic in 2021. The survey revealed Utah adolescents’ struggle with COVID-19 specifically.

COVID-19 impacts, according to the report, include:

  • 29% of Utah students reported getting sick with COVID-19 or having symptoms of the virus.
  • 36.7% of Utah students reported feeling anxious, sad or hopeless in the past year due to COVID-19. Female students (48.5%) were significantly more likely to report having these feelings than male students (23.3%).
  • 39.4% of Utah students reported difficulty utilizing the online learning platform employed by their schools during periods of online instruction.
  • 80.7% of students reported that they did not stay focused while doing online school work.
  • 32.4% of students did not have a quiet space to use when doing online school work.

The pandemic exposed feelings of isolation society has long been grappling with, said Friedrichs.

“We live in a society that is increasingly isolated and increasingly connected over computers instead of actually being with each other and sharing experiences. And that’s why I think we’ve seen adolescent poor mental health increase since way before the pandemic,” said Friedrichs. “We become so disconnected that the ability to really make meaningful connections with other people is so important for not just adolescents but all of our mental health.”

Fortunately, the pandemic did provide an increased connection among some. In the report, 57.9% of students regularly ate meals with their families. The regular connection with family could be a factor in other trends observed in the report.

“The real surprise that we found was a sharp decline in most addictive substances,” said Friedrichs.

Substance use — including binge drinking, alcohol use, cigarette smoking and marijuana use — decreased in 2021, according to the report. Data also showed a significant decrease in vape product use since 2019, at 12.4%, but vape products remain the most common source of nicotine addiction among Utah students.

“We never know what really caused it. But we do know, for example, underage tobacco use or underage drinking that kids get their substances from peers a lot at school. If they weren’t in school, maybe they had less access to those things,” said Friedrichs. “And more time at home with families may be a protective factor that kept kids from initiating.”

The 2021 Utah Adolescent Report also includes comparisons over time, by local health district, grade and sex. The graphs and tables show the percentage of Utah students who are affected by different health issues and where problems are concentrated in the state. To read the full report visit health.utah.gov.

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Ashley Fredde is a reporter with KSL.com covering arts, culture and entertainment news, as well as human services, minority communities and women’s issues. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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