Amid lots of good news in the 2016 Minnesota Student Survey — rates of teen drinking, smoking, violence and pregnancy all declined — there was one glaring trend that didn’t get as much attention.
Minnesota students were more likely to report long-term mental health problems than they were three years earlier.
Twenty percent of 11th-graders reported mental, behavioral or emotional disorders that lasted at least six months, according to the 2016 survey results released Nov. 1. In 2013, the rate was 9.7 percent.
Also, 12 percent of high school juniors seriously considered suicide in the year before the 2016 survey — up from 9.7 percent in 2013.
The results were jarring enough that officials with the Minnesota Department of Health plan to examine them more closely and release a report later this winter on student mental health. The survey is one of the most influential measures of student well-being in the nation — collecting responses from thousands of students in 282 Minnesota school districts.
“That’s a sizable increase,” said Pete Rode, a senior research scientist with the state Health Department.
The results might contain silver linings; more 11th-graders received mental health treatment in 2016 compared to 2013. So it is possible that today’s teens are simply more aware of their disorders and more likely to get help, rather than really suffering more disorders.
And while suicidal thoughts increased, actual attempts at suicide and self-harm did not.
“Maybe there is a greater level of acceptance and decreased stigma that, even in an anonymous survey, people felt more comfortable acknowledging they were experiencing some kind of emotional challenges,” said Tom Steinmetz of the Washburn Center for Children, a leading provider of school-based mental health services in Minneapolis.
Researchers will be mining the student survey data for answers. Perhaps student responses in others areas such as sleep hours, vegetable consumption, bullying or even screen time correlate (not necessarily a cause and effect) with mental health issues.
Even if students are more comfortable acknowledging mental disorders, that doesn’t change the fact that too few access treatment, Steinmetz said. “To still be in a reality where only about 1 in 5 of the kids who are experiencing mental health concerns are actually receiving treatment, I see that as a major public health concern.”