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Teen substance use declined during the pandemic — even as mental health concerns increased

Department of Health and Human Services report details COVID-19’s impact on teen health

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Students arrive at East High School for their first day of in-person learning in almost a year on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Utah teens faced more mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic but reported less substance use, according to a report shedding light on the pandemic’s toll on adolescent health.

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services released their 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report last month, which showed a “significant increase” in students who exhibited signs of depression. The report is based on a survey of students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12. It is conducted every two years, meaning the latest report is the first to include data since the start of the pandemic.

“These surveys are critical tools to help school administrators, teachers, and public health professionals identify health and safety needs of Utah students and take steps toward protecting and improving adolescent health,” said Michael Friedrichs, deputy state epidemiologist with the DHHS. “Without this data, we wouldn’t be able to identify trends in risk behaviors or evaluate the success of programs that increase protective factors.”

As worrying as the increase in feelings of sadness or hopelessness are, Friedrichs said the report looked at a variety of mental health indicators, and the spikes in other concerns were even more pronounced.

Depression-like symptoms have been on the rise in the state since 2013, but the most recent report shows a “dramatic jump” in psychological distress or anxiety between 2019 and 2021, Friedrichs said.

The pandemic is a likely culprit, with many students saying they missed social interactions and suffered from remote schooling and isolation. The report doesn’t examine causality, and Friedrichs said he believes there are a multitude of other factors that contribute to a stressful life for teens in this day and age.

“You know, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got wars in Ukraine, we’ve got more political divisiveness,” he said. “The pandemic may be ending, but the things that make me anxious are still happening.”

Will substance use rebound post-pandemic?

The decline in substance use during the pandemic is probably the result of a few different factors. Notably, many students get drugs, nicotine or alcohol from other students at school, making substances less available while schools went remote or closed.

Nearly 92% of students reported participating in at least some online learning during the pandemic, and over 70% said they missed the social aspects of the classroom.

Now, as the world continues to open up, Friedrichs said if he had to make a prediction, he thinks substance use will begin to tick back up.

“The other thing that happened was that kids were home more, and we know that families are protective for substance use,” he said. “Maybe being around their families and parents was really good for them. And now, everybody’s sort of back in the world, and the world is more messy than ever.”

When it comes to substance use, vaping remains the most popular form among teens, Friedrichs said, although rates are still lower than some expected. That may be because more people are aware of the dangers of vaping, including addiction and risks of stunting brain development.

Other teen health findings

Here’s what else the report found about student health overall:

  • Lack of physical activity remains a serious health concern for many adolescents. Only 16.8% of students get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise every day.
  • “The lack of physical activity just gets worse and worse and worse,” Friedrichs said. “Very few kids are being physically active and obesity rates continue to inch up. We sort of ignore those things, but they’re the real killers.”
  • Most kids should spend more time doing physical activities outside, which can have the added benefits of helping with mental health, Friedrichs said.
  • Most adolescents reported they always wear a seatbelt in the car, but more than half said they talk on the cell phone while driving and 36% said they text and drive.
  • Almost 30% of students said they contracted COVID-19 or had coronavirus-like symptoms.