Recently published data about health-related behaviors of Harwood Union High School (HUHS) and Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) students show experiences of poor mental health among students who identify as female and/or LGBTQ.
The data comes from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) – a national survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1990 for middle (grades six to eight) and high school (grades nine to12) students. The survey monitors “priority health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disease, injury and social problems among youth,” according to the Vermont Department of Health.
Every two years, students in public schools and some independent schools participate in the survey. In Vermont, the Department of Health has worked with the Agency of Education and the CDC to administer it since 1993.
The survey addresses behaviors and perceptions around physical activity, nutrition, housing insecurity, substance use, violence, sexuality and more. Vermont students submitted 17,708 questionnaires.
Statewide results from 2021 were published in May, and local results for HUHS and CBMS students became available in July. The COVID-19 pandemic created a delay in processing the data, according to Kristen Murray, a public health analyst for the Vermont Department of Health.
The 2021 results show that in the 30 days prior to when students took the survey, over a third of high school students across Vermont reported experiences of stress, anxiety, and depression most or all of the time. Female and “LGBTQ+” students were significantly more likely than male and heterosexual cisgender identifying students to experience poor mental health in that month. The survey defines “LGBTQ+” as students who identify as transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, having ‘other sexual orientation,’ and/or questioning or unsure if they are transgender students.
Results from HUHS students’ surveys mirrors this statewide data. It also showed that HUHS students who identify as female and/or LGBTQ+ are more likely to harm themselves, make plans about how they would attempt suicide and/or attempt suicide. These groups also felt treated badly due to gender identity and/or sexual orientation and were significantly less likely to think that they mattered to people in their communities.
Compared to statewide data, HUHS students felt less likely to have at least one teacher or adult in their school that they could talk to if they had a problem.
In many of these categories, CBMS students who identify as female and/or LGBTQ+ reported worse mental health experiences than their male and heterosexual cisgender identifying counterparts.
In Vermont overall, a third of high school students reported that they could always or at least most of the time get the kind of help they needed when feeling sad, angry, hopeless, or anxious in the month preceding the survey. Only a quarter of LGBTQ+ students said they could get the help they needed most of the time in the month prior to taking the survey.
Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Superintendent Michael Leichliter said that 2021 saw a greater increase in poor mental health experiences as a result of many of the social factors that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Murray presented these survey results to the state’s Substance Misuse Prevention Oversight and Advisory Council on September 18, she noted that the social context of the pandemic was important to keep in mind. But Melanie Sheehan, a member of that council and the director of community health at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, said that mental health experiences and outcomes among youth were on the decline much before the pandemic and its effects emerged.
Ultimately, the Vermont Department of Health sees the data as a “tool for starting discussions, for educating the community, for planning and evaluating programs, and for comparing Vermont students with other students nationwide,” according to the survey.
This is the first of a series of stories in which The Valley Reporter will explore student mental health in The Valley.