Utah 2021 Student Survey: Mental health concerns increase while drug use decreases

May 24, 2022, 7:24 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2022, 4:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – A 2021 survey of tens of thousands of Utah students shows the impact of the pandemic on their lives, including an increase in mental health concerns but a decrease in substance use.

On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services and the Utah State Board of Education released the Prevention Needs Assessment survey results.

The survey is given in the springtime during odd years to a random sample of students (with parental consent) in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12.

It asks about chronic health conditions, physical activity, safety issues, mental health, and substance use.

“These surveys are critical tools to help school administrators, teachers, and public health professionals identify health and safety needs of Utah students and take steps toward protecting and improving adolescent health,” said a prepared statement from deputy state epidemiologist Michael Friedrichs.

Friedrichs said the survey results help the health department identify trends in risky behaviors and determine if programs aimed at increasing safe behaviors are successful.

“In 2021, 35.1% of Utah students in grades 8, 10, and 12 reported feeling sad or hopeless, a significant increase from 2019 (30.7%),” according to a report.

The 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report focuses on middle and high school students, so 6th graders were omitted. The analysis included 47,627 students from grades 8, 10, and 12.

“I’m concerned that they’re increasingly isolated,” Friedrichs said about Utah teens in an interview with KSL-TV. “We’ve seen an increase in poor mental health since 2013.”

Across the state, students in the Weber-Morgan and Salt Lake County health districts reported significantly higher percentages of feeling sad or hopeless than the state average, the report said.

In contrast, students in Utah, Davis, and Wasatch counties, along with the Central Utah Bear River health districts, reported significantly lower percentages of feeling sad or hopeless.

“The good thing is—we ask questions about suicide ideation—and that has leveled off somewhat,” Friedrichs added.

In 2021, more than 27% of students in grades 8, 10, and 12 reported experiencing psychological distress.

Survey map of students in grades 8, 10, and 12 with who felt sad or hopeless.

The report said that’s a significant increase from 2019, when 21.5% of students said they experienced psychological distress.

“We did learn that 70% of kids miss spending time with other students in school,” Friedrichs said. “Over two-thirds of them actually miss spending time with their teachers, so a shout out to all the teachers out there.”

According to a press release from the health department, other report highlights include:

  • Substance use (including binge drinking, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and marijuana use) decreased in 2021. Although data from this survey show a significant decrease in vape product use since 2019 (12.4%), vape products remain the most common source of nicotine addiction among Utah students.
  • 57.9% of students regularly ate meals with their families.
  • Only 16.8% of students met the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for physical activity (60 or more minutes per day).
  • 66.5% of students reported they always wore a seatbelt. However, distracted driving continues to be a risk factor for youth, with 53.9% of students reporting they talked on a cell phone while driving and 36.3% reporting they text and drive.
  • 29.0% of students reported getting sick with COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus. This is more than three times the known positive test rate (7.8%) for this age group in Utah as of May 31, 2021.
  • 91.5% of students reported they participated in online learning during the 2020-2021 school year, and 70.5% of students said they missed spending time in-person at school learning with other students.
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Utah 2021 Student Survey: Mental health concerns increase while drug use decreases