Fewer Colorado youth feel sad, hopeless, suicidal, health survey finds

State leaders say a recent survey shows mental health is improving among Colorado youth. (Sladic / Getty Images)

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Fewer Colorado youth felt consistently sad or hopeless and fewer considered suicide last year compared with 2021, a large statewide health survey found.

The results from the Healthy Kids Colorado survey represent a bright spot after unprecedented levels of teen anxiety and depression surfaced during the pandemic. The situation was dire enough that state lawmakers took swift action, creating a program in 2021 to provide free counseling sessions to children and youth. Many school districts also launched free counseling programs and hired additional social workers, counselors, and psychologists.

Leaders at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which publishes the survey results, were pleased with the survey findings released Wednesday.

“There have been dramatic changes in the right direction around indicators of mental health, suicide risk, and substance use,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the department’s executive director, in a press release. “We’re hopeful this is an indication of state and community investments in prevention programming and protective factors paying off.”

The 2023 Healthy Kids findings on youth mental health are among the most notable of the survey results. In some cases they improved to well beyond pre-pandemic levels.

For example, 26% of high-schoolers reported persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness in the 2023 survey, down from 40% in 2021 and 35% in 2019. In addition, 11% of high schoolers seriously considered suicide, down from 17% in 2021. Middle schoolers also saw drops in both categories.

Among both middle and high school students, 58% reported their stress level was manageable most days — an improvement for high school students compared with 2021, but the same for middle schoolers.

Alcohol use, vaping fell for high schoolers

In addition to positive trends on youth mental health for both middle and high school students, the survey revealed that fewer high school students are vaping, drinking alcohol, or using prescription pain medication without a prescription or differently than prescribed compared with 2021. Marijuana use held steady.

For middle schoolers, alcohol use was up in 2023, with many more reporting that they had ever taken a drink — 24% compared with 11% in 2021 — and more reporting they’d consumed alcohol in the previous month — 7% compared with 4% in 2021.

Middle school rates of vaping and using marijuana didn’t change in 2023 compared to 2021, but the survey found that more students in that age group had tried cigarettes — 7% compared to 4% in 2021.

While bullying overall didn’t increase in 2023 compared with 2021, LGBTQ students reported significantly higher rates of bullying than other students. For example, 29% of gay and lesbian high school students reported being bullied during the previous year, compared with 12% of students generally. Gay and lesbian students also reported higher rates of sadness and hopelessness, and that they’d seriously considered suicide.

More efforts to improve youth mental health are on the way in Colorado.

In May, the state announced a program that will train young adults ages 18 to 24 to connect youth with mental health support. This month, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a new youth mental health grant program funded with millions from a lawsuit settlement with e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs Inc.

The Healthy Kids survey has been given under various names since 1991. It has occasionally sparked backlash over concerns about data privacy or because some critics say the questions are too explicit.

Public health officials emphasize the survey is voluntary for students and provides key information about how pre-teens and teens are faring when it comes to physical, sexual, and mental health.

More than 120,000 students completed the survey in 2023 — the most ever.

State officials added several new questions to the 2023 survey, including about feeling safe at school, nightly sleep hours, use of psychedelic drugs, body image, and eating disorders.

One of the new questions revealed that nearly a quarter of high-schoolers and middle schoolers reported trying to lose weight or maintain their weight in unhealthy ways during the previous month — for example, by using diet pills, skipping meals, or vomiting.

Another new question revealed that large proportions of students worry about their physical appearance all or most of the time — 39% for high schoolers and 32% for middle schoolers.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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