Mental and emotional health challenges are increasing among North Carolina high school students, particularly those who identify as female, lesbian, gay, or bisexual, according to the 2021 NC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the first since the pandemic began.
“This is the only survey in the state that uses student voice,” said Ellen Essick, section chief of NC Healthy Schools and Specialized Instructional Support at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). “Everything else we do, we talk about students. This is where students talk about themselves.”
The biannual survey has been conducted in the spring of every odd year since 1993. Middle and high school students are randomly selected from throughout the state to participate. They can answer any or none of the questions. Essick said 1,759 high schoolers participated in 2021.
She shared takeaways from the high schoolers’ responses Monday at this year’s final meeting of the Child Fatality Task Force (CFTF), a group that studies trends in child deaths and recommends prevention strategies to the legislature and the governor. Essick will share more at the January meeting of the State Board of Education, she said.
Slightly higher reported suicidal behaviors
High school students reported slightly higher suicidal thoughts and behaviors than in 2019.
Respondents who reported seriously considering suicide rose from 19% to 22%. Those who said they made a plan for suicide went from 15% to 18%. Those who reported an attempted suicide held steady at 10%.
Among participants who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, almost half (48%) had seriously considered suicide, compared with 15% of heterosexual respondents; 36% had made a plan, compared with 12% of heterosexual respondents; and 21% had attempted suicide, compared with 6% of heterosexual respondents.
Essick pointed out that the uptick in students who said they had seriously considered suicide is mostly due to an increase among females. In 2021, 30% of female respondents said they had seriously considered suicide, compared with 23% in 2019 and 15% a decade earlier, in 2011. In 2021, 14% of males had seriously considered committing suicide, compared with 15% in 2019 and 14% in 2011.
Dating violence reports double; mental health worsens
The percentage of high schoolers who said they had experienced physical dating violence nearly doubled, from 7% in 2019 to 13% in 2021.
“This really shocked us, and it has us worried,” Essick said. “… We’re scrambling to figure out where we need to change our intervention and prevention efforts, at least in public schools, from our perspective, and we’ll work with all of you on how to do that.”
From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed that they felt good about themselves fell from 60% to 49%. The percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed that they felt alone went from 31% to 33%. The percentage of students who agreed with a definition of clinical depression went from 36% to 43%.
Thirty-four percent of high schoolers said their mental health was not good most of the time or always. Almost half of female high schoolers (46%) reported this, compared with 21% of males. Sixty percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students reported this, compared with 24% of heterosexual students. Sixty-nine percent of students who identified as “other or questioning” reported this.
Twenty-two percent of all high school respondents said they had purposely done something to hurt themselves without wanting to die, with similar trends: higher rates in female students and lesbian, gay, and bisexual students.
Thirty-one percent of female high school students, compared with 12% of male students, reported self-harm. Forty-nine percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students reported self-harm, compared with 13% of heterosexual respondents.
Vaping and bullying reportedly down
The percentage of students who said they had ever used an electronic vaping product fell significantly, from 52% in 2019 to 38% in 2021. Those who said they currently used a vaping product went from 36% in 2019 to 24% in 2021.
The percentage of students who said they had experienced electronic bullying slightly fell from 15% in 2019 to 13% in 2021. Those who said they were bullied on school property fell from 19% to 14%.
Seventeen percent of respondents said they did not go to school because they felt unsafe on the way or at school, compared with 14% in 2019 and 10% in 2017.
Thirty percent of high school students reported it would take them less than an hour to get and be ready to fire a loaded gun without a parent or other adult’s permission. This was higher for males: 35%, compared with 24% of females.