Record High Levels of Student Hopelessness is a Call To Action!

by Dr. Kelley Cullen

The latest results of Washington’s Healthy Youth Survey (HYS) are in and student hopelessness has reached a record high in the combined counties. According to the survey administered in public schools, 43% of 10th graders in Chelan & Douglas Counties reported feeling sad or hopeless to the extent that they could not participate in their usual activities. Although this rate exceeds the state average (38%), it closely matches the national average of 44% found by the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS).

Why is the mental health of teenagers a concern?

                Poor mental health in adolescence is more than just teenage angst. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Washington teens 15-19 years old. Youth with poor mental health may struggle with academics, decision making, and their overall health. It can also lead to other health and behavioral risks like substance abuse, experiences of violence, and risky sexual behavior than can translate into HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Because many health behaviors and habits are established in adolescence that will carry over into adult years, it is very important to help youth develop good mental health.

What does the data say?

                The State of Washington’s HYS asks middle and high school students every two years about a variety of health risk behaviors. Chelan Douglas Trends 5.2.4 measures the share of 8th, 10th & 12th grade students reporting feeling sad or hopeless. In the past 15 years, the share of 10th graders in the combined counties who reported poor mental health has steadily increased by 15 percentage points, from 28% to 43%. Currently three out of every seven sophomore students in the combined counties reported feeling so sad and helpless that they could not participate in their regular activities, a record high. The unique stressors of the pandemic only account for the last 4 percentage point increase.

                Increasing sadness and hopelessness is also a state and national problem. During the same time period, the state average increased more slowly, from 30% to 38%, and is now below the combined counties.  At the national level, the CDC reports that more than one in three high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. And in 2019, approximately one in six youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.

What might be causing the increase in student sadness / hopelessness?

                Teenagers face a variety of stressors as they transition to the increasing responsibilities of adulthood. In his recent article, “Why American Teens Are So Sad,” in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson posits four major explanations for the significant increase in teenage sadness. First, he points to research studies conducted by Facebook & Instagram that show social media is strongly associated with worse mental health for teenagers, especially for girls. Secondly, sociality is down. Research suggests that the social media itself is not wholly to blame, but rather the activities it replaces. Third, there is more news about the world’s stressors such as gun violence, climate and the political environment. And lastly, the author points to modern parenting strategies placing more pressure on kids. In addition to higher expectations about success, the author argues that protective parenting also deprives children of the emotional resilience they need to handle the world’s stressors.

What (if anything) can we do about it? 

                According to a recent publication “Poor Mental Health is a Growing Problem for Adolescents” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the good news is that teens are resilient and prevention strategies around helping adolescents feel connected to school, family and community can promote improved mental health. Building strong bonds and relationships with adults and friends at school, at home and in the community provides youth with a sense of connectedness.

                Psychologists refer to these prevention efforts to support youth as protective factors. In their article, “Protective Factors Buffer Life Stress & Behavioral Health Outcomes Among High-Risk Youth,” psychologists Shubam Sharma, et. al. find evidence that protective factors such as religiosity, parental monitoring, and neighborhood activities provide support adolescents and lower the risk of negative behavioral health outcomes.

                Some examples of school protective factors include linking students with mental health services, integrating social emotional learning in the curriculum, training staff and support staff mental health as well. Also, by regularly reviewing discipline policies, schools can work to build safe and supportive environments for their students.

                At the household level, parents and families can also take steps to help prevent students from becoming sad or feeling hopeless. By communicating openly and honestly, spending time enjoying shared activities, being engaged in school activities or even helping with homework, families strengthen those connections that can lead to better mental health. Psychologists also recommend volunteering at school and staying in touch with teachers and administrators.

                Lastly, because healthier youth is a community health issue, it is important for communities to make use of protective factors to build connections. In addition to providing support for both schools and families, communities can provide opportunities for connection in public spaces such as libraries or through parks and recreation programs. Organizing activities for students to engage with each other outside of the house or school will also promote better mental health and help to reduce feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

                With increased investment in school, household and community protective factors – in essence by heeding the call to action – the trend of increasing student hopelessness could be halted or even reduced in Chelan & Douglas counties.