Mental Health A Bigger Issue For Teens Than Drug Use, Survey Says

By Maggie Ethridge 06/21/18

According to a new survey, the number of teens experiencing more hopelessness, sadness and suicidal ideation is on the rise.

Group of teens hanging out

This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

The self-reported data of 4 million teens showed that the demographic is engaging in less sex and less drug use than in the decade preceding.

Data collected yearly over the last decade showed a significant drop in the number of teens using illicit drugs (specifically: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, inhalants, hallucinogens, or ecstasy). The numbers fell from 22.6% of students reporting having used one or more illicit drug in 2007, to 14% in 2017.

Injectable drugs, the most dangerous, were reported as experienced by 1.5% of high school students in 2017. However, the survey found that a troubling 14% reported misusing prescription opioids. As 2017 was the first year for recording data on opioid use in teens, there are no comparison numbers.

The numbers for sexual activity dropped as well: 39.5% of the teenagers in 2017 reported they had ever had sex. This is down from 47.8% in 2007, another significant drop. Those who were engaging in sexual activity were less likely to have multiple partners, according to the survey.

Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health department, says, "Overall, I think youth are making better decisions, particularly about their sexual behavior and their drug use.”

Still, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey also revealed some troubling facts. While the rate of bullying and sexual assaults has barely reduced, the amount of teens reporting that they felt sad or hopeless has increased from 28.5% in 2007 to 31.5% in 2017.

In addition, the rate of teenagers contemplating suicide rose from 14.5% to 17% in the same time period.

Jonathan Mermin, MD, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, felt the survey results were profoundly mixed. 

Mermin noted, “Today’s youth are making better decisions about their health than just a decade ago,” and then went on to say, “But, some experiences, such as physical and sexual violence, are outside their control and continue at painfully high levels. Their experiences today have powerful implications for their lives tomorrow.”

The CDC concluded its summary of the survey with a quote from Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

“We know that being connected to schools and safe adults is key to protecting the health of adolescents,” she said. “Students are more likely to thrive if they feel safe and have a sense of belonging—and if they have parents, adults, teachers, and friends who they know care about their success.”

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.