Half of all high school students in Vermont have tried electronic vapor products like e-cigarettes, up from just 30% in 2015. That’s according to results from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a study administered statewide to thousands of Vermont students every two years.
The YRBS was developed by the Centers for Disease Control in 1990 to monitor behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disease and injury among young people. The survey anonymously polls middle and high school students about such topics as substance use, sexual health, and nutrition. In Vermont, over 18,000 public and private high school students participated in the latest survey.
The results also highlighted an increasingly bleak mental health picture for Vermont’s teens. Thirty-one percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in the last year that they stopped doing some usual activities. That’s up from 21% 10 years ago.
Both suicidal ideation, self-harm, and suicide attempts are also being reported more frequently. Four percent of high school students reported attempting suicide within a one-year period in 2009; in the latest survey, 7% did.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Jeanne Collins said she was “dismayed but not surprised” about 2019’s results.
“I would venture a guess that nearly all school administrators would say that the most troubling issues that we’re facing right now is cyberbullying and mental health issues in our student population,” she said.
She added that schools are increasingly attempting to pick up the slack from an under-resourced mental health system, taking on more counselors, behavioral interventionists, and partnering with local mental health clinics to make services more accessible to families. At Otter Valley Union High, in her district, Collins noted, administrators had recently hired a social-emotional learning coach to help educators.
“I’m hearing stress, incredible stress from teachers in the classroom about how to help,” she said.
Jay Nichols, the executive of the Vermont Principals Association, echoed Collins, saying the data reinforced concerns he’d consistently heard from the field.
“I do think that there are more kids now than ever before that are feeling … a lack of sense of belonging. There’s a lot more trauma than there’s ever been before. There’s a lot more split families. There’s a lot of adverse childhood experiences,” he said.
But while mental health indicators are declining for Vermont’s general high school population, they remain substantially worse for LGBT teens.
Queer students were nearly 2½ times as likely as their heterosexual and cisgender peers to feel so sad or hopeless during the past year that they stopped doing certain activities. And 19% of LGBT high school students reported making a suicide attempt in the last year; compared to 4% of their straight peers.
Dana Kaplan, the executive director of Outright Vermont, a Burlington-based nonprofit serving queer kids and teens, called the most recent round of YRBS data “disappointing and not incredibly surprising.”
“Across every indicator of risky behavior, LGBTQ youth are worse off,” he said. “And that is nothing innately about their identity, and everything about the environment that they are trying to live in.”
Kaplan speculated that the national political climate was likely making things worse for students at home in Vermont.
“We know there’s been an uptick in identity-based hate,” he said. “The threshold for what is OK has really shifted.”
Notables findings from the 2019 survey also include:
- An uptick in prescription drug misuse. Twelve percent of high school students reported ever misusing prescription drugs, up from 10% in 2015. But that’s still significantly less than in 2009, when 17% of students said they had misused such drugs.
- A decline in teen drinking. Thirty-one percent of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days in 2019, down from 39% 10 years prior. Binge drinking was also down from 17% in 2015 to 15% in 2019.
- Fewer high school students are having sex. Overall, 40% of high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse, according to 2019’s survey results, down from 45% in 2009.
YRBS results for students in grades 6-8 are still forthcoming from the Health Department, as is a breakdown of the data by county and school districts.
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