New survey finds alarming data on children’s mental health in CT

Sadness, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts have increased among Connecticut high school students, yet the number of students who say they’re able to get the support they need has decreased, a newly released survey shows.

According to the Connecticut School Health Survey, conducted in 2021 and released this month by the Department of Public Health, more than a third of Connecticut high school students reported having felt sad or hopeless, while more than a quarter report that their mental health was not good most or all of the time and about one in seven said they had seriously considered suicide.

Yet only 22.3 percent of students said they can often or always get the help they need, the lowest figure on record.

“This is like warning lights flashing at us non-stop, and we’re not doing enough about it,” Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate said Monday. “We are missing the boat.”

Data from the Connecticut School Health Survey shows that feelings of sadness among hopelessness have increased steadily over time, reaching a new high during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of students who reported considering suicide has increased in recent years as well, reaching 14.1 percent in 2021, though the number of students who report having attempted suicide has decreased.

Mental health struggles are more common among female students, the survey found, with 47.6 percent of girls reporting feelings of sadness or hopelessness (compared to 24.2 percent of boys)  and 40.5 percent saying their mental health was not good most or all of the time (compared to 16.4 percent of boys).

These findings reinforce what advocates have called a children’s mental health crisis in Connecticut and elsewhere, exacerbated by the pandemic. They say rising needs among kids have stretched providers, leading to crowded emergency departments and hospitals and long wait lists for outpatient services.

One key in-home treatment program, known as IICAPS, had a wait list of 500 children as of last week, Eagan said.

Kathrn Meyer, an attorney with the Hartford-based Center for Children’s Advocacy, said she has seen a rush of young people seeking mental health services since the pandemic and a shortage of services available to help them.

“The increased isolation really put kids in a position of not having that socialization practice,” Meyer said. “The peer conflict … is just so escalated from the intensity, the severity, the frequency, the language used in the cases I’ve seen is just very escalated.”

Eagan cited several figures from the Connecticut School Health Survey in a recent letter to state officials advocating for more funding for children’s mental health programs in the state budget. In recent weeks, behavioral health providers have warned that budget proposals from both Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature’s Appropriations Committee could endanger key programs, including some that were established as part of a widely celebrated package of children’s mental health bills passed last spring.

The budget process remains ongoing, and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will eventually find more money for the programs.

The Connecticut School Health Survey, conducted biannually, polled 1,760 students in 25 high schools during fall 2021, asking about not only mental health but also other aspects of youth behavior. Other findings included:

  • 24.8 percent of students reported having had sexual intercourse, down from 34.3 percent in 2019 and the lowest figure on record, while 18 percent said they were currently sexually active. Only 1.9 percent said they’d had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13.
  • 15.4 percent of students said they had been in a physical fight, the lowest figure on record.
  • 38.4 percent of students said they did not always wear a seatbelt, also the lowest figure on record. Reports of drunk driving and riding with a drunk driver also decreased to new lows.
  • Reported alcohol use also decreased, with 10 percent of students saying they had their first drink before age 13 and 17.5 percent saying they currently drank.
  • Use of tobacco decreased as well, with 1.3 percent of students saying they smoked cigarettes and 10.6 percent saying they used an electronic vapor product.
  • However, the number of students who described themselves as obese (15.1 percent) or overweight (16.6 percent) increased from 2019 to 2021, while the number who reported regularly eating fruits and vegetables declined.
  • 53.7 percent of students described their health as excellent or very good, the lowest figure on record.

In presenting its findings, the Department of Public Health cautioned that the pandemic may have skewed the data in several ways. Whereas the survey is typically conducted during the spring semester of a given school year, the 2021 version was conducted in the fall, when data suggests some risk behaviors tend to be lower. 

 

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