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Dane County youth survey reports more students anxious, depressed

September 18, 2018

High school students today are feeling more anxious, more depressed and even more suicidal than students six years ago, according to Dane County’s 2018 Youth Assessment.

The assessment, a survey conducted every three years, asked high school and middle school students about their attitudes, behaviors and experiences to identify trends and needs of youth in the county.

More than 21,000 students across 17 school districts were surveyed between January and April.

The percentage of high school students experiencing mental health issues continued to increase over the past two surveys, according to the report.

About 35 percent of students reported that they feel anxious “often or always” compared to 31.2 percent in 2015 and 25.7 percent in 2012.

The top reasons students reported for feeling anxious were the pressure to perform well in school (63 percent) and the heavy homework load (60 percent).

Among seventh to 12th grade students, 20.7 percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the past 30 days, up from 18.7 percent in 2015 and 12.3 percent in 2012.

Five percent of students reported attempting suicide in the past year, which is down from 5.8 percent in 2015 but up from 4.7 percent in 2012.

Seeking data about depression, the survey asked students, “During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least 2 weeks in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?” About 23 percent of seventh to 12th grade students answered “yes” compared with 21.7 percent in 2015 and 19.4 percent in 2012.

Percentages of students experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are greater among girls, students who are gay, lesbian or bisexual and low-income students.

More than 80 percent of all high school students are not receiving mental health services. Only 30.7 percent of students feeling anxious and 37.4 percent of students feeling depressed are receiving those services.

“We cannot ignore the persistent emotional health concerns that out youth report struggling with, particularly among young women, (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and questioning), and low-income youth,” County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement. “The results speak to the continued need for school based mental health services that Dane County has supported and expanded over the years.”

In 2013, Dane County began its Building Bridges program in which mental health professionals work with students, families, teachers and law enforcement to address mental health needs and to improve classroom and home experiences for students.

The program is currently in 10 school districts with 20 mental health professionals. The program is paid for through matching funds between the county and the school districts with $1 million spent by the county so far, said Josh Wescott, Parisi’s chief of staff.

Scott Strong, executive director of RISE, formerly the Center for Families and Community Partnerships, said all adults surrounding children who may be feeling anxious or depressed can help by having open conversations about mental health. Parents, teachers and other adults should learn signs of depressive or anxious behavior, like isolation, and know what to do when they see those signs.

“Sometimes, when kids have those feelings and nobody asks, they think that nobody cares,” Strong said.

Parents need to listen and be responsive to their children’s feelings, Strong said. They also need to ensure their kids feel comfortable talking about emotions, mistakes or even bad behavior without being reprimanded.

“Open up lines of communication so they are willing to talk to you,” Strong said.

Other high school students should also know to come forward when a friend is suicidal, Strong said. They may feel pressure to “be a good friend” by keeping secrets, Strong said, but threats of harm should be reported to a responsible adult.

The report also shows decreases in other areas the county had considered problems, according to the report.

Bullying has decreased at both the middle school and high school levels. About 49 percent of seventh and eighth grade students said they had been bullied in the past 30 days compared with 50.4 percent in 2015 and 55.4 percent in 2012. About 36 percent of high school students had been bullied compared with 37.3 percent in 2015 and 40.5 percent in 2012.

Fewer high schoolers are also reporting drinking alcohol. The percentage of students who drank alcohol in the past 30 days dropped from 32.6 in 2015 to 22 percent this year. About 30 percent of high school students drank in the past year, down from 35 in 2015.

Students who said they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days decreased from 7 to 3 percent from 2015 to this year, but 18.8 percent reported using vapor or e-cigarettes compared with 16 percent in 2015.

More than 55 percent of high school students said there is “slight to no risk” of using e-cigarettes. The Surgeon General reports that nicotine in any form is harmful to the developing brains of children and young adults under age 25.

Anyone having thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected with a trained crisis worker or sent a message to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected with a crisis counselor.

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