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Inside the mind of the Utah teenager, from substance abuse to COVID-19

Posted at 1:47 PM, Oct 15, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — From substance use to cyberbullying, a new survey is providing insight into the minds of Utah teenagers.

The Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey is given every two years to students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12. Teens are are asked a wide variety of questions about mental health, suicide, vaping, tobacco use, alcohol use, how much time they spend on their phones and even how much sleep they get.

This year, more than 70,000 students participated statewide in 40 of Utah's 41 public school districts. The responses are anonymous.

What Utah's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health (a part of the Utah Department of Human Services) and the Utah Department of Health found is tobacco, alcohol, vaping and illicit drug use has seen some declines. But mental health problems among youth in Utah has been increasing, including suicidal ideation and attempts.

"This is a trend that’s been going on for 10 years, we’ve seen seeing an increase in ideation, thoughts, planning or attempts," said Susannah Burt with the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Hispanic or Latinx youth saw an increase in mental health needs, and LGBTQ youth were reported to be at a higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the data.

Burt noted an increase in students who opted not to talk to anyone about their mental health, which is something they want to see more resources put into.

"These are students who are not talking to someone about their emotions and we want to continue to destigmatize that," Burt said.

Bullying also increased, particularly online, the SHARP survey revealed.

"Knowing that we saw more students in the last year online than we did previously, we would expect to see a little more of the negative effects from screens or being online more," Burt told reporters.

The SHARP survey found that nearly 40% of sixth graders and 80% of 12th graders were getting less than eight hours of sleep per night. And a lot of students are spending time on electronic devices for things other than school work. About 60% of sixth graders reported spending two or more hours a day on a phone, tablet, laptop or other electronic device. For 12th graders? It's 87%.

This year, the survey asked about COVID-19. Statewide, 27% of students across all the surveyed grades reported getting COVID-19 or related symptoms. Nearly 7% of them knew someone who lost work; almost 2% reported going hungry because their family couldn't afford food; almost 15% had increased family trouble brought on by the pandemic; and 33% reported feeling "anxious, sad or hopeless" because of COVID-19. The numbers were more pronounced among Hispanic/Pacific Islander youth, the SHARP survey found.

"COVID does have a significant impact on our kids," said Janae Duncan with the Utah Department of Health in response to the SHARP survey. "We want to keep monitoring long-term what that impact could be and make sure we’re supporting kids getting back to healthy behaviors, healthy relationships and make sure they're supported at home, in their schools and their communities."

But Duncan found some reasons to be hopeful about the results, including the resilency of Utah's youth.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see our trends maintaining," she said.

The results of the SHARP survey can inform policy. It will be used to direct policymakers on where to put resources in place to help youth and their families.

Read the SHARP survey here:

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visiting http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you prefer text messaging, simply send the word "HELLO" to 741-741 for free and confidential emotional support.

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