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CDC data shows why lawmakers are worried about the mental health of Utah’s youth

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2019, file photo, a woman checks her phone in Orem, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
AP, file
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2019, file photo, a woman checks her phone in Orem, Utah. In the name of protecting youth and their mental health, state lawmakers have been focused this session on the effects of social media with the governor going as far as announcing an intent to sue the companies.

Teenage girls nationwide are experiencing record high levels of sadness and violence, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend also holds true in Utah, where girls are feeling persistently sad at a higher rate than boys.

The data in the CDC report is from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a survey that was last administered to high school students nationwide in 2021. According to the data, 57% of females reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year” compared to 29% of males surveyed. Teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning also experienced persistent sadness at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers, 69% compared to 35%.

Teen girls and LGBTQ+ youth also experienced high rates of sexual violence.

“This tragedy cannot continue,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, during a news conference. “Although we have seen worsening trends in mental health for young people over the last 10 years, the levels of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors reported by teenage girls are now higher than we have ever seen.”

Only a small percentage of Utah public school students participate in the national study, most take Utah’s Prevention Needs Assessment, which is given to students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 during the same time that the Youth Risk Behavior Survey is administered.

A significantly higher percentage of Utah teen girls reported feeling sad or hopeless compared to teen boys surveyed, 42.9% to 26.4, according to the Utah Adolescent Health Report that uses data from the Prevention Needs Assessment. Compared to teen boys, more teen girls also reported experiencing psychological distress, social isolation, self-harm, suicidal ideation and attempting suicide.

The CDC report and the Utah Adolescent Health Report do not explain why youth are experiencing more mental health problems, especially girls.

“But even if we don’t know the exact causes, we do have solutions,” Ethier said. “Positive, supportive school environments are really essential to change the direction of these trends.”

Youth mental health is being discussed by Utah lawmakers during this year’s legislative session. One proposed bill would create the Office of Student Health Affairs, which would work to improve the physical and mental health of students. Another bill deals with mental health screenings for students. Other bills deal with staff who are designated to support students' mental and behavioral health.

Lawmakers are also taking aim at social media companies in an attempt to improve youth mental health and also because they are worried about the data social media companies are collecting. Sen. Mike McKell’s bill, SB152, would place restrictions on minors using social media, including requiring the consent of a parent or guardian before a minor is able to open an account and giving parents the power to oversee the account.

“Social media companies know their products are toxic for teens. They design their products to be addictive,” McKell said during a Feb. 13 debate on the bill. “And the sad part is it's our daughters, it's our young women that seem to be struggling with it the most.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Spencer Cox hosted a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium to talk about how social media is harming kids. Cox later announced plans to sue social media companies.

Sarah Coyne is a Brigham Young University professor of human development and studies media. Based on her research and other research, she’s very doubtful that putting these restrictions on social media would improve the mental health of youth.

“In my professional opinion, it will not solve the mental health problem in Utah at all.”

Coyne said the research on social media is very complex and whether social media positively or negatively affects someone depends on who they are and how they are using it. She thinks the link between social media and mental health is often blown out of proportion.

Specifically, with LGBTQ+ youth, Coyne said social media is an important space where they can find belonging, even if they aren’t accepted at school or by their family. She worries that restricting social media could harm marginalized groups who do not have a safe space.

Instead of restricting or banning social media, Coyne would like to see more education to help kids safely navigate social media platforms.

“My dream is that we have digital literacy classes that are required for multiple grades across the entire state of Utah, starting from before kids get a cell phone,” Coyne said. “It’s such a better resource for them, for their adult lives, where social media is going to be such a huge part of it.”

University of Utah psychology professor, Aaron Fischer, said it has been nice to see the Legislature working on youth mental health and giving the issue some attention. He’s excited about one proposal to put teen centers in more Utah high schools to specifically help at-risk students.

“It's really trying to get more integrated support into our communities. And I think we have so many committees across the state that are so remote and so underserved that there's a lot we can do if we can set this kind of foundation.”

Fischer appreciates a resolution from Rep. Steve Eliason that recognizes the work of nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors and highlights that there is not enough funding for these positions.He also oversees the Utah School Mental Health Collaborative and made a request to the legislature for more funding to expand that project into more school districts.

Fischer is worried the legislature could also negatively impact youth mental health, specifically LGBTQ+ youth. Early in the session, lawmakers passed a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

“I worry, from the mental health standpoint, that it communicates to our transgender youth and to our queer youth that this isn’t a safe place to live and this isn’t a safe place to be who you are,” Fischer said. “I worry about the implications: the anxiety, the depression, the suicidal ideation. And those are the things that keep me up at night.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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