States giving up on a federal program that tracks teen behavior as youth mental health deteriorates

While the covid-19 pandemic has worsened a mental health crisis among American youth, a small group of states have quietly withdrawn from the nation’s largest public effort to track behavior affecting high school students.

Colorado, Florida and Idaho will not participate in a key portion of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth risk behavior surveys that reach more than 80,000 students. Over the past 30 years, state-level surveys, conducted anonymously during each odd year, have helped clarify the mental health stressors and safety risks of high school students.

Each state has its own reasons for giving up, but their withdrawal – when suicides and feelings of despair have escalated – have drawn the attention of school psychologists and federal and state health officials.

Some questions about state-level surveys – which can also ask students about their sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual activity, and drug use – collide with laws that have been passed in conservative states. Some experts fear that the intense political focus on teachers and school curricula has led to a reluctance among educators to involve students in what were once considered routine mental and behavioral health assessments.

Reducing the number of states participating in the state-wide CDC survey will make it more difficult for those states to track conditions and behaviors that signal poor mental health, such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation experts said.

“Having this kind of data allows us to say ‘do this, not that’ in really important ways,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Teen Health and Schools, who oversees the series of known health surveys. such as Juvenile risk Behavioral surveillance system. “For any state to lose the ability to have that data and use it to understand what is happening to young people in their state is a huge loss.”

The CDC developed the Juvenile Risk Behavior Surveillance System in 1990 to track the leading causes of death and injury among young people. It consists of a nationally representative survey of students from grades nine through 12 and separate questionnaires at the state and local school district level. The questions focus on behaviors that lead to unintended injury, violence, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, and more.

The decisions of Colorado, Florida, and Idaho not to participate in state-level questionnaires will not affect the CDC national survey or local school districts in states that have them.

Part of what makes the survey such a powerful tool is the diversity of the information it collects, said Norín Dollard, senior analyst at Florida Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and support group. “Allows data analysis by subgroups, including LGBTQ + youth, so that the needs of these students, who are at greater risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse than their peers, are understood and can be supported by schools and community providers, ”said Dollard, who is also director of Florida Kids Count, part of a nationwide network of nonprofit child-focused programs in the United States.

The CDC is still processing the 2021 data and has not released the results due to delays due to the pandemic, said Paul Fulton, a spokesperson for the agency. But national survey trends from 2009 to 2019 showed that young people’s mental health had deteriorated over the previous decade.

“So we started planning,” Ethier said. “When the pandemic hit, we were able to say, ‘Here are the things you should be paying attention to.’

The pandemic has further exacerbated the mental health problems young people face, said Angela Mann, president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists.

Nearly half of parents who responded to a recent KFF / CNN mental health survey said the pandemic had a negative impact on their child’s mental health. Most said they were concerned that problems such as self-harm and loneliness resulting from the pandemic could affect teens.

But the CDC survey has shortcomings, health officials in some states have backed down. Not all high schools are included, for example. And the sample of students from each state is so small that some state officials said their schools received little useful data despite decades of participation.

This was the case in Colorado, which decided not to participate next year, according to Emily Fine, head of the school and youth survey at the Colorado Department of Health. Instead, she said, the state will focus on improving a separate study called Healthy Kids Colorado, which includes questions similar to the CDC survey and Colorado-specific questions. The Colorado survey, which has been running for about a decade, covers about 100,000 students statewide, nearly 100 times the number who participated in the CDC’s state-level survey in 2019.

Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, which also have their own youth polls, have never participated or decided to skip the previous two CDC assessments. At least seven states will not participate in the 2023 state-level survey.

Fine said the state option is more beneficial because schools receive their own results.

In Leadville, a Colorado mountain town, a youth coalition used the results of the Healthy Kids Colorado survey to conclude that the county had above-average drug use rates. They also learned that Hispanic students in particular did not feel comfortable sharing serious problems such as suicidal thoughts with adults, suggesting that opportunities to report problems in advance were being missed.

“I feel that most of the kids are telling the truth about those polls, so I think it’s a reliable source,” said high school student Daisey Monge, who is part of the youth coalition, which has proposed a policy to train adults in the community for improve relationships with young people.

Education officials in Florida and Idaho said they intend to collect more state-specific data using newly created questionnaires. But neither state has planned a new survey, and what questions will be asked or what data will be captured is unclear.

Cassandra Palelis, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, said in an email that Florida intends to assemble a “working group” to design its new system.

In recent years, Idaho officials have cited CDC survey data when they applied for and received $ 11 million in grants for a new youth suicide prevention program called the Idaho Lives Project. The data showed that the share of high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide increased from 15% in 2011 to 22% in 2019.

“This is worrying,” said Eric Studebaker, director of student engagement and safety coordination for the state Department of Education. However, he said, the state is concerned about taking up class time probing students and pushing boundaries by asking questions that are not approved by parents.

Whatever the logic, youth mental health advocates call exclusion shortsighted and potentially harmful as the exodus erodes national data collection. The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health stress of all high school students, especially those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities and those who identify as LGBTQ +.

But since April, at least a dozen states have proposed bills that mirror Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which bans education on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. .

The law, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay,” and the intense political focus it has focused on teachers and school curricula are having a chilling effect on all age groups, youth advocates like Mann said. Florida school psychologist. “Some of these discussions about schools indoctrinating children have resulted in discussions about mental health services in schools,” he said.

Since the law was passed, some Florida school administrators have removed the “safe space” stickers with the rainbow flag indicating support for LGBTQ + students. Some teachers have resigned to protest the law, while others have expressed confusion about what they can discuss in class.

With data showing students need more mental health services, giving up state-level surveys now could do more harm than good, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, professor of school psychology at the University of Colorado-Denver. , which used national data on youth risk behavior to analyze trends.

“It will make it harder to really get control over what is happening nationwide,” he said.

KHN Colorado correspondent Rae Ellen Bichell contributed to this report.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a gifted non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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