Susan R. Madsen: Teen girls in Utah face sexual assault, violence, depression and suicidality

Our Utah village needs to do a lot better raising our children.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline call center in Salt Lake City, where all Utah calls are routed, is pictured on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. The call center, one of many across the country, continues to grow as they provide immediate access to crisis intervention and support for behavioral health.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report discussed some disturbing findings that teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk.

The report stated that nearly 3 in 5 (57%) of U.S. teen girl felt “persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, which was double that of boys and represented a nearly 60% increase over the past decade.” Although we don’t have the 2021 state findings yet, there are a number of particularly concerning Utah to U.S. comparisons that were collected by the CDC in 2019 that bear examination.

First, as I’ve written about before, in 2019, 21.2% of Utah teen girls, compared to 16.6% of U.S. teen girls, say that they had “Experienced sexual violence by anyone (including kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to, one or more times during the 12 months before the survey).” That is one in five of Utah girls! In fact, 11.3% say that they “Were ever physically forced to have sexual intercourse (when they did not want to).”

Further, 15.3% of Utah teen girls — compared to 12.6% nationally — responded that they “Experienced sexual dating violence (being forced to do sexual things, counting such things as kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse) they did not want to do by someone they were dating or going out with, one or more times during the 12 months before the survey, among students who dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey).”

Rape continues to be the only violent crime in Utah with higher rates than the national average.

Second, and possibly related, Utah teen girls (11.9%) were significantly more likely than their national peers (6.7%) — and Utah teen boys (30.8%) more likely than U.S. teen boys (19.5%) — to admit they have “Carried a weapon (such as a gun, knife, or club, on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey).” In fact, nearly 11% of Utah girls said they “did not go to school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to and from school (on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.”

I hope this statistic is being explored by schools, agencies and departments around the state.

[Read more: Is Utah ‘chronically unsafe’ for women? Why nearly half say yes.]

Third, a similar percentage of Utah teen girls (45.7%) and U.S. teen girls (46.6%) said that they “Felt sad or hopeless (almost every day for 2 or more weeks in a row so that they stopped doing some usual activities, during the 12 months before the survey).” Of course, from the U.S. 2021 data just released, we know that this percentage has increased.

When asked if they had “Seriously considered attempting suicide.” 26.6% of Utah teen girls in 2019 — compared to 24.1% nationally — answered affirmatively. In addition, one in five had a suicide plan and one in 10 “Actually attempted suicide.” For more information, the Utah Women & Leadership Project released a 2022 report specifically related to suicide among Utah girls and women. I know that rates of suicide ideation, attempts and completions for all ages and genders is a deep concern to all of us.

These findings are now four years old, and a lot has happened in the world since then (I’m looking at you, COVID-19). As with the recently released CDC report, trends are even more concerning in 2023 than in 2019.

One thing is clear — it will take a lot of work from all of us (e.g., parents, educators, faith leaders and others) to turn the tide for our youth today. In Utah, we need to do more to protect our children and youth from sexual assault, violence, depression and suicidality. We want them safe, alive, and thriving.

Today, more than ever before, it truly “takes a village to raise a child,” and our Utah village needs to do more.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.