SALT LAKE CITY — More than 1 in 4 Utah teens are feeling sad enough to consider suicide, and about 8 percent report having tried at least once to take their own lives, according to a survey of students throughout the state.
Future surveys most likely will include questions about screen time and social media use, sexual orientation and gender identity, and social isolation to help state health officials better understand teens and what might lead them into depression.
"We know it's not just one thing," said Mike Friedrichs, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health's Bureau of Health Promotion. "We know that youth are increasingly disconnected. and that's an issue."
"It should be shocking to people," he said.
Kids and teens can experience sadness, but when feelings of hopelessness continue two or more weeks, "to the point where it becomes difficult to enjoy activities or do daily tasks," it could lead to depression, the 2017 Utah Adolescent Health Report states.
In 2013, 20.8 percent of the 34,229 students surveyed reported being depressed. The number increased to 24.7 percent in 2015; and in 2017 there was another "significant increase," the report states, to 27.3 percent.
Also in 2017, data show more than 20 percent of Utah students in grades eight, 10 and 12 reported feelings of psychological distress, which led to 18.1 percent seriously considering suicide, 14.3 percent making a plan to kill themselves and 7.7 percent reported having attempted to take their own lives.
"Suicide attempts are a significant risk factor for suicide death later on," the report states. "All suicide attempts should be taken seriously."
The risk is highest among females, and the report indicates older students are more likely to experience feelings that might lead to suicide.
In addition to mental health, the School Health and Risk Prevention survey — issued to students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 every other year — assesses adolescent behaviors on lifestyle, substance abuse, and violence and injury, among others.
The health department collects the data, and its partners, the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and the Utah State Board of Education, are responsible to form interventions, but, "families and communities have a role in this, and even peers have a role in it, Friedrichs said.
"If we didn't collect this data, we wouldn't know," Friedrichs said, adding that the survey results also point to trends that health officials want to see, such as decreased exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke and teen experimentation with cigarettes, and nearly 50 percent fewer teens using tanning beds.
Obesity is still an issue among teens, which Friedrichs said is a major risk factor for these kids as they grow into adulthood.
"I think it is shocking that 1 in 10 kids are obese. Not overweight, but obese, and it's not a big deal (to people)," he said. "If 1 in 10 kids had measles, it would be a big deal."
He said obese children are at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes and bullying, as well as poor physical health, yet, "we just accept it," Friedrichs said.
"We as a people can do better than that," he said.
Teen use of electronic cigarettes has more than doubled in the last five years, a concerning trend realized by consistent surveying of youth. Not to mention, Friedrichs said, "there are still far too many kids texting and driving."
Close to 49 percent of teen respondents reported talking on a cellphone while driving and 37.6 percent reported texting while driving, both of which are forms of distracted driving.
Fortunately, 95.5 percent reported frequently wearing a seat belt.
The results of the survey provide "critical tools that help school administrators, teachers and public health practitioners identify health and safety needs of Utah students and take steps toward protecting and improving adolescent health," said Friedrichs.
The report states, "Opportunities for change exist all around us."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Utah youth with smartphones can also download the SafeUT app for around-the-clock counseling and crisis intervention.
For a full copy of the 2017 Utah Adolescent Health report, visit health.utah.gov/vipp/pdf/2017UtahAdolescent HealthReport.pdf.