Challenges in mental health and substance use stand out during a period of social and educational disruption
New data from the Vermont Dept. of Health that measures students’ health risks and behaviors provides a unique snapshot of Vermont youth’s health and well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2021 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), released Monday, May 22, shows that students know how to get help from an adult if they need it, are involved in extracurricular activities, and generally feel valued by their communities. However, areas of concern include continued substance use, the number of students reporting active thoughts of self-harm and significant disparities in mental health among populations such as LGBTQ+ students.
The survey of Vermont high school and middle school students is conducted every other year and asks questions covering a broad range of topics, including substance use, mental health, unintentional injuries, violence, physical activity, nutrition, and factors such as school and family connectiveness and post-graduation plans. The survey is a joint effort of the Health Department and Agency of Education that surveys middle school students in grades 6 through 8 and high school students in grades 9 through 12.
The new data reflects disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in students’ routines and lives — including remote learning, lack of social interactions and curtailed after-school and extracurricular activities — which impacted people’s usual behaviors.
The time of year for when students took the survey also shifted. The 2021 YRBS had to be conducted in the fall semester (September-December) instead of the spring semester (January-June), which meant the average age of survey participants was younger than in past years. This likely influenced the data, relative to things kids may experience when they are even just a little older.
For these reasons, unlike previous YRBS reports, the report does not compare 2021 to previous years and should not be used as a direct comparison to previous years. Health officials said that the data does afford a perspective into student behaviors at the peak of the pandemic.
“While the pandemic disruptions mean we won’t have an apples-to-apples comparison of trends from earlier years, this data gives us better insight into how Vermont’s youth population managed during that difficult time,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD.
Dr. Levine said every generation has its unique individual and societal challenges, but the pandemic took a toll not seen for decades. “Few have experienced what these kids have, with impacts on almost every aspect of their lives – from education, missed milestone celebrations, and to their mental health and emotional development,” said Dr. Levine. “As the governor has said, ‘the kids are not all right,’ and we are working across state government and with community partners to bend the curve to improve the physical and mental health of our young people.”
Below are some of the most notable Youth Risk Behavior Survey Highlights, according to the dept.
Mental health, self-harm and community
New for this survey, students were asked if they experience poor mental health. The results show a significant disparity in the mental health of LGBTQ+ and female students.
35% of high school students report they recently experienced poor mental health
LGBTQ+ and female students experience poor mental health at twice the rate of heterosexual, cisgender and male students
22% of middle school students reported they recently had poor mental health “always or most of the time”
LGBTQ+ and female students in middle school are nearly three times more likely to report “feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge at least most of the time during the past year”
Data on community and relationships show more than half of all high school and middle school students believe they matter to people in their community.
70% of high school students and 67% of middle school students said they have at least one teacher or adult at school they can talk to if they have a problem
Slightly more than 50% of both high school and middle school students feel valued by their communities. However, this means a great many students disagreed or did not know if they mattered to their communities.
Serious disparities exist among female, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, with fewer reporting feeling valued, or that they have an adult at school with whom they can discuss a problem.
Of significant concern is the finding that high school students who identify as LGBTQ+ are three and a half times more likely to make a plan to kill themselves, to attempt to do so, or otherwise engage in self-harm. Dr. Levine said working to help these students to know they matter, and to have support services in place and readily accessible, is a top priority across state government.
16% of high school students report using electronic vape products (EVP) in the last 30 days. Of those students, 30% report vaping every day. A new question asked high school students who vape their primary reason for vaping:
32% percent use an EVP because they want to get high or a buzz
30% use because they feel anxious or stressed
13% use because they are curious about them
The middle school report shows 9% of students have tried an electronic vapor product.
When asked about substance use in the previous month, a quarter of high school students reported drinking, 20% having used marijuana and 5% smoked at least one cigarette. Middle school students were also asked about substance use in the last month: 5% reported drinking alcohol, 3% using marijuana and 1% smoked at least one cigarette.
Other report highlights:
Nearly 70% of high school students believe they will attend a 4-year college or university, a community college or a technical school
Most high school students participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, band, drama or clubs run by the school or the community
A third of high school students have had sexual intercourse. Of those currently sexually active, more than half used prescription birth control and a third used a condom to prevent pregnancy
More than a quarter of high school students are physically active for at least 60 minutes every day
For the complete YRBS reports and highlight summaries, visit HealthVermont.gov/yrbs.