Survey shows alarming increase in Wisconsin youth mental health struggles during pandemic
Editor's note: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or distress, trained help is available. You can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
A newly-released survey helps paint a picture of how Wisconsin teenagers’ mental health has suffered during the pandemic.
More high school students are experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Especially high rates of mental health issues were seen in lesbian, gay and bisexual students, as well as female students.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks a representative sample of Wisconsin high school students questions about mental health, bullying, drugs and alcohol, and how safe they feel.
It’s conducted every other year by the CDC and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. This latest data is from fall 2021 — about a year and a half into the pandemic, when many students had experienced school shutdowns and social isolation.
"Essentially what we’ve had here is an interruption in the normal development of kids," DPI mental health consultant Monica Caldwell told reporters Tuesday. "It was paused and disrupted by COVID. And so kids have some unmet needs, of course, and they’re catching up."
DPI did caution against attributing the results entirely to pandemic factors. Youth anxiety and depression were on the rise before COVID.
The 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows one in three Wisconsin students experienced symptoms of depression. That’s the highest rate ever seen on the survey.
Sixty-six percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students reported feelings of depression, as did 45% of female high schoolers.
The survey started asking students about anxiety in 2017. Since then, the number of teens reporting significant feelings of anxiety rose from 40% to 52%.
The percent of teens who seriously considered suicide in the past year increased to the highest level since 2003 — 18%. Nearly half of lesbian, gay and bisexual students considered suicide, and female students were more than twice as likely as males to think about suicide.
About 9% of students said they had attempted suicide.
DPI officials emphasized that the mental health data for lesbian, gay and bisexual students is especially alarming. DPI consultant Molly Herrmann advises schools on LGBTQ+ supports.
"We know that at least one opportunity or one system of support for LGB students was lost or minimized during the pandemic when they were no longer at school," Herrmann said. "So if the place they were finding acceptance or support was at school, that was no longer available. And that critical — at least one accepting adult that could mitigate the chances there would be a suicide attempt — was no longer in place."
Herrmann said using students’ preferred pronouns can also help prevent suicide attempts.
Yet, that’s not always supported by school boards. Pronouns and gay pride flags have been topics of debate in some Wisconsin districts over the past two years.
State Superintendent Jill Underly has called on schools to create welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ students, including using preferred pronouns.
"Affirming identities is suicide prevention," Underly said in her September State of Education speech. "It’s proven self-care. It’s strong mental health practice. Pronouns save lives."
DPI is also pushing for more state funding to support student mental health, and pointing to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey results as evidence it's needed.
Wisconsin school districts have one-time federal aid they can use to bolster mental health staff and programs. But DPI wants to increase ongoing state support for school mental health by more than $270 million in the upcoming biennial budget.
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