A new study shows that more Utah teens appear to be struggling with mental health, with nearly 1 in 4 teens in some areas of the state reporting that they recently had seriously considered suicide.
Of more than 34,000 teens statewide who completed questionnaires last year, more than a quarter reported that their feelings of sadness and hopelessness had gotten so bad that they had stopped doing some of their usual activities, according to research released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Health.
That is up significantly from 2013, when about 21 percent reported similar feelings.
“Unfortunately, what stands out most in this report is that the measures we use to track adolescent mental health are all trending in the wrong direction,” Michael Friedrichs, an epidemiologist with the state, said in a news statement.
Utah's girls appear to bear the brunt of despair: More than one-third of girls surveyed reported experiencing debilitating sadness and hopelessness for at least a two-week stretch, and they also accounted for most of the increase. Boys' reports of sadness and helplessness rose from about 15 percent to 19 percent in the four years leading up to Wednesday's study.
The study gathered questionnaires from students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12.
The percentage of students having suicidal thoughts and making attempts also increased, the study reported — a grim trend in a state where suicide is already the leading cause of death among adolescents.
In 2017, about 18 percent of respondents statewide said they had seriously considered suicide at some point in the previous year, with numbers as high as 23.3 percent in and around the Uintah Basin. Statewide, more than 1 in 5 girls said they had contemplated suicide.
One in seven teens statewide reported making a suicide plan in the previous year, and 1 in 13 said they attempted suicide.
More than 1 in 10 girls said they attempted suicide.
Some research has tied rising teen depression and suicide to rising social media use, said Kim Myers, state suicide prevention coordinator — and that may affect girls more than boys, she said.
"Some of the theories that are coming out with social media and technology talk about impact on girls especially," Myers said. Some studies show that girls are more often targeted by cyberbullying and more affected by social comparisons, Myers said.
But it’s “never [just] one thing that causes somebody to consider suicide,” Myers said. “We have a lot of work to do to figure out what is driving it.”
Youth deaths by suicide have held steady since 2015, Myers said, but Utah’s overall suicide rate is the 5th highest in the nation.
The study also showed dramatic increases in teens' vaping or use of e-cigarettes, from 5.8 percent to 11.1 percent.
But cigarette use decreased slightly (3.9 percent to 2.9 percent), and only 4 percent of teens were using tanning beds, down from 7.7 percent in 2013.
“There are also positive signs in the report,” Friedrichs said. “Fewer adolescents are being exposed to cigarette smoke and tanning devices which can put them at significant risk of cancer later in life.”
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.