Utah kids were more depressed last year — and more findings from new state youth report

The 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report also found that children caught COVID-19 more often than previously reported.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Registered nurse Yazmin Tovar gives a 16-year-old her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the former Provo High School on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Statewide, Utah children in grades eight, 10 and 12 last year caught COVID-19 more often than previously reported, were more depressed and misused drugs less frequently, among other findings, according to a new state report.

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line also provides free support available 24/7. Text HOME to 741741.

Utah children were more depressed last year, according to the 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report.

They also caught COVID-19 more often than previously reported, misused drugs less frequently and felt somewhat safer in schools.

The report, issued every two years, is compiled from a random sampling of students in grades eight, 10 and 12.

It’s seen as a critical tool to help Utah educators — and public health professionals — identify the needs of state students and take steps toward protecting them, said Michael Friedrichs, deputy state epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

COVID-19 and online learning

According to the report, 29% of students surveyed reportedly tested positive or experienced symptoms of COVID-19 last year.

That’s 3.7 times the previously reported 7.8% positivity rate for their age group (as of May 31, 2021, about the time the surveys were completed). And for every positive test, there may have been three additional COVID-19 cases, the report states.

According to the report:

• 91.5% of students said they participated in online learning.

• 80.7% said they did not stay focused during online learning.

• 39.4% reported difficulty using the schools’ online learning platforms.

About 32% of students also reported that they did not have a quiet place to do schoolwork at home.

And 36.7% reported feeling anxious, sad or hopeless because of COVID-19.

Mental health concerns deepen

The amount of Utah students in grades eight, 10 and 12 who said they were depressed last year rose, with 35.1% of students reportedly feeling generally sad or hopeless — up from 30.7% in 2019.

“Adolescents who have depression are at an elevated risk for a host of other negative health outcomes,” including substance misuse and suicide, the report states.

According to the report, in the past year:

• 19% had seriously considered attempting suicide, up from 18.2% in 2019.

• 14.4% made a plan for how they would attempt suicide, up from 13.6% in 2019.

• 7% made one or more suicide attempts, about the same percentage as in 2019.

• 18.6% reported self-harm — most commonly cutting or burning themselves — up from 16.2% in 2019.

• 27.2% experienced psychological distress, up from 21.5% in 2019.

• 24.5% felt isolated, up from 18.7% in 2019.

Substance misuse rates improve

Drug and alcohol misuse dipped last year for students in grades eight, 10 and 12. So did cigarette smoking and vaping, the results indicate.

At the time of the survey:

• 3.1% of students reported binge drinking within the past two weeks, down from 4.9% in 2019. (Binge drinking is defined as having four to five drinks or more on a single occasion.)

• 5.3% reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, down from 7.1% in 2019.

• 5.9% reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, down from 8.2% in 2019.

• 1.7% reported misusing prescription drugs in the past 30 days, down from 2.2% in 2019.

• 1% reported smoking cigarettes in the past 30 days, down from 1.5% in 2019.

• 7.8% said they had used vape products in the past 30 days, down from 12.4% in 2019.

Online bullying, dating violence rates increase

Among the students surveyed, in-person bullying was down last year, but online bullying was up, which coincided with the jump in online learning.

Overall, fewer students felt unsafe in schools, but more reported dating violence.

According to the report, in the past year:

• 19.8% of students were picked on or bullied by another student on school property, down from 23.8% in 2019.

• 27.2% were threatened or harassed over the internet, by email, or by someone using a cell phone, up from 22.1% in 2019.

• 8.8% said they felt unsafe at school, down from 10.9% in 2019.

• 11.% of those who were dating reported experiencing dating violence, including being hit, slammed into something or injured with an object or weapon — up from 9.9% in 2019.

The report also included information on asthma, diabetes and obesity rates; physical activity; motor vehicle safety and more. It’s based on the results of two questionnaires — the Prevention Needs Assessment and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Parental consent is required to participate.

The Prevention Needs Assessment did not include students in private or alternative schools, school dropouts, or adolescents in correctional facilities and treatment centers. Students who did not return their consent forms were not represented, according to the report.